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Hairy electronic skin catches the breeze

Sensors made of hairlike pillars and graphene flakes can detect the direction and force of airflow

by Prachi Patel, special to C&EN
April 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 15


Photo of a wheeled robot with a sail and sensor array that turns the sail and moves forward when air blows over the sensors.
Credit: Changhyun Pang
A skin-like sensing device on a wind-powered robot detects airflow angle and direction, triggering the sail to pivot to catch the breeze.

Designing sensors that mimic those in human skin could lead to more realistic prosthetic limbs, ones that can feel a light touch or the warm sun. But flexible electronic skin so far has not incorporated the small feelers that make mammals unique: hair. Now, by placing microscopic polymer hairs on top of graphene, researchers have made a skin-like sensing device that can feel wind and detect its direction and angle (ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2019, DOI: 10.1021/acsami.9b01427). Changhyun Pang of Sungkyunkwan University and colleagues built an array of sensors by depositing a thin film of graphene nanoflakes on a piece of flexible polyethylene. Applying pressure to the sensors pushes the nanoflakes together, changing the electrical resistance. On top of the array, the researchers placed a poly(dimethylsiloxane) film molded with a forest of microscopic pillars. Airflow bends the pillars and puts pressure on the graphene sensors, changing their output current. To demonstrate the device, the team attached it to a wheeled robot powered by a sail. The sensors detected airflow and adjusted the sail to the wind direction so the robot could move forward.


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