Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have developed what they claim is the world's first interactive network of sensors in the form of a flexible plastic material.

The electronic skin, or “e-skin,” consists of a flexible material which is embedded with a network of sensors. The sensors enable the material to respond to tactile pressure by producing light in corresponding volumes – the more pressure applied, the greater the levels of light emitted.

This latest e-skin developed by the research team marks a major departure from its predecessors due to its interactive capabilities.

“Integrating sensors into a network is not new, but converting the data obtained into something interactive is the breakthrough,” said Chuan Wang, currently an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State University and co-author of a study on the new material.

“Unlike the stiff touchscreens on iPhones, computer monitors and ATMs, the e-skin is flexible and can be easily laminated onto any surface.”

The team of UC Berkeley researchers led by Ali Javey created the innovative material by first placing a thin layer of polymer on top of a silicon wafer.

After the polymer layer hardens, electronic components are introduced into the plastic by means of tools and production methods which are widely employed in the manufacture of semiconductors.

Once the network of electronic components is in place, the plastic is stripped from the silicon base to reveal a flexible film embedded with a network of sensors.

Ali Javey, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, says the use of manufacturing techniques from the semiconductor industry means that in addition to possessing breakthrough capabilities, the e-skin will also be easy to manufacture.

“The electronic components are all vertically integrated, which is a fairly sophisticated system to put on a relatively cheap piece of plastic,” Javey said in a statement. “What makes this technology potentially easy to commercialise is that the process meshes well with existing semiconductor machinery.”

The potential applications of cost effective, flexible electrical skins are immense. Everyday applications could include wallpaper touchscreens and interactive dashboard laminates, while in more esoteric areas the hi-tech materials could be used to enhance the tactile sensitivity of robots, or develop far more sophisticated medical treatment tools.

“I could imagine an e-skin bandage applied to an arm as a health monitor that continuously checks blood pressure and pulse rates,” says Wang.