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Chemical Sensing

Crabs gather data with high-tech skin

Flexible, lightweight skin is equipped with sensors, memory, and communications features

by Bethany Halford
May 6, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 19

A crab is shown wearing on its back an electronic skin that features gold-colored components.
Credit: Joanna Nassar

Scientists studying marine environments could soon get much more detailed information, thanks to a cutting-edge electronic skin that can be affixed to crabs. Electronic sensors for aquatic animals, particularly small critters, must be extremely lightweight so they don’t interfere with the creature’s normal behavior. Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology created an ultralightweight electronic skin that’s waterproof, flexible, and stretchable and contains sensors that can measure ocean salinity, temperature, and depth (npj Flexible Electron. 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41528-018-0025-1). The device is also equipped with memory and Bluetooth communications technology so it can log and transmit the data it gathers. The researchers, led by Muhammad M. Hussain, built the electronic skin on a polydimethylsiloxane elastomer so that it wouldn’t degrade when exposed to microorganisms in the ocean. They superglued the skin, which is just 300 μm thick and has a length and width similar to the short side of a credit card, to a swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus, shown). Then they monitored the crustacean as it scuttled around the shore of the Red Sea. “We are still in the prototype phase,” Hussain says, “but we are working with others to further expand testing on a variety of animals such a dolphins and whale sharks.”


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