Nano-enabled prosthetic skin on ‘bionic’ limbs

sixmilliondollar4.jpg Sarah: Integrated and functional artificial limbs and body parts: it’s something our parents turned on the TV to dream about (think of The 6 Million Dollar Man). Incredibly, in 2008 these ‘bionic’ limbs are a reality, with several prototypes being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the USA. Nanotechnology will have a huge impact in the prosthetic limb arena: right now it is being used by a triad of American research groups to faciliate the development of synthetic skin. The goal of synthetic skin is to eventually allow environmental information such as heat and touch to be conveyed through the limb to the wearer. The synthetic skin currently under development is known as polyimide, and is constructed by incorporating carbon nanotubes into a rubbery polymer. These structural components confer many of the features of real skin to this synthetic equivalent: polyimide skin is flexible, stretchable, lightweight and tough. In addition, and thanks in large part to the presence of the carbon nanotubes, it has the unique charactersitic of being peizoelectric – that is, it generates electricity in response to pressure or touch. Future versions of the skin will probably utilise vertically aligned nanotubes to confer temperature information from the periphery to a central data collection point. The next challenge is to collect the touch and temperature data, and somehow relay it through nerves to the brain of the wearer. Trials already performed on amputees suggest that this too is achievable. Cyborgs everywhere, eat your heart out.

Originally published on Blog@NanoVic for Nanotechnology Victoria.

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