Prosthetic hand feels heat and humidity

A material that is able to ‘sense’ heat, humidity and pressure is being combined with a prosthetic hand to give some of the sense of touch back to amputees, by providing them with tactile information.

Researchers in South Korea have developed a stretchy ‘skin’ like material that is able to sense pressure, temperature, and humidity.

The researchers tested the artificial skin on a prosthetic hand, and they hope that some day, it will interface with a patient’s nerves so amputees can feel everything the material touches.

“For prosthetic devices and artificial skin to feel natural, their temperature profile must be controlled to match that of the human body,” wrote the researchers in paper published by Nature. “The prosthetic hand and laminated electronic skin could encounter many complex operations such as hand shaking, keyboard tapping, holding a cup of hot or cold drink, touching dry or wet surfaces and human to human contact.”

The bulk of the new skin is composed of a flexible, transparent silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). Embedded within it are silicon ‘nano-ribbons’ that generate electricity when they’re squished or stretched, providing a source of tactile feedback. They can also sense whether an object is hot or cold.

The humidity sensors are made up of capacitors. When the polymer surrounding a capacitor absorbs water, the moisture changes the polymer’s ability to store a charge. The capacitors measure that storage change and use it to determine the moisture levels of the environment.

Justin Cunningham

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