Terminator-style synthetic ‘soft skin that heals itself’ made for robots

A Terminator-style synthetic skin for robots that heals itself and even has a sense of touch has been created by scientists.

But the futuristic e-skin, like that worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg character, could even be used to help fuel the rise of sexbots – making them ultra-realistic.

Layering was key to replicating the qualities of human skin, explained the researchers at Stanford University, California.

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Co author Chris Cooper, a PhD candidate, said: "We’ve achieved what we believe to be the first demonstration of a multi-layer, thin film sensor that automatically realigns during healing.

"This is a critical step toward mimicking human skin, which has multiple layers that all re-assemble correctly during the healing process."

Co-author Dr Sam Root said: "It is soft and stretchable. But if you puncture it, slice it, or cut it each layer will selectively heal with itself to restore the overall function. Just like real skin."

Skin, too, is formed of layers. It has just evolved immune mechanisms that rebuild the tissue with the original layered structure through a complex process involving molecular recognition and signaling.

Mr Cooper said: "With true 'skin' the layers should realign naturally and autonomously."

The US team hope to develop multi-tiered skin with individually-functional layers less than a micron thin each.

A stack of 10 or more would be no thicker than a sheet of paper.

They can be engineered to sense thermal, mechanical or electrical changes.

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Lead author Professor Zhenan Bao said: "We reported the first multi-layer self-healing synthetic electronic skin in 2012 in Nature Nanotechnology.

"There has been a lot of interest around the world in pursuing multi-layer synthetic skin since then."

The current study in the journal Science takes it a step further. The layers self-recognise and align with each other – restoring functionality as they heal.

Existing versions must be repaired manually by humans. Even a slight alteration might prevent recovery.

The backbone of each layer is formed of long molecular chains connected by dynamic hydrogen bonds.

It enables repeated stretching without tearing – similar to latex.

The researchers used silicone and PPG (polypropylene glycol). Both have mechanical and rubber-like properties and biocompatibility.

Tiny particles trigger conductivity. When warmed both polymers soften and flow – then solidify as they cool.

When heated to just 70°C (158°F), the self-alignment and healing happen in about 24 hours. At room temperature, it can take as long as a week.

The two materials were carefully designed to have similar viscous and elastic responses to external stress over an appropriate temperature range.

They could transform warfare, with deployment of indestructible killer robots in the battlefield.

Mr Cooper said: "Our long-term vision is to create devices that can recover from extreme damage."

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