A 3-in-1 hybrid material enables the next generation of smart, artificial skin. (Credit: Lunghammer/TU Graz)

Researchers have developed three-in-one hybrid material smart skin for the next generation of artificial, electronic skin using a novel process. With 2,000 individual sensors per square millimeter, the hybrid material is even more sensitive than a human fingertip. Each sensor consists of a unique combination of materials: a smart polymer in the form of a hydrogel inside and a shell of piezoelectric zinc oxide.

The hydrogel can absorb water and thus expands upon changes in humidity and temperature. In doing so, it exerts pressure on the piezoelectric zinc oxide, which responds to this and all other mechanical stresses with an electrical signal. The result is a wafer-thin material that reacts simultaneously to force, moisture, and temperature with extremely high spatial resolution and emits corresponding electronic signals.

The individual sensor layers are very thin and at the same time equipped with sensor elements covering the entire surface. This was possible in a worldwide unique process for which the researchers combined a chemical vapor deposition for the hydrogel material, an atomic layer deposition for the zinc oxide, and nanoprint lithography for the polymer template.

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