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Artificial skin capable of detecting temperature changes

Photo: Artificial skin that 'feels' temperature
A team of engineers and scientists from the US and Switzerland have developed an artificial skin capable of detecting temperature changes.

A venomous snake has inspired the development of an artificial skin capable of sensing heat.

A distinguishing characteristic found in the pit viper prompted scientists to create the new material that could one day be grafted onto prosthetic limbs to restore amputees' temperature sensing abilities.

One of the scientists behind the exciting development, Professor Raffaele Di Giacomo from Swiss university ETH Zurich, says the "skin" could also be applied to first-aid bandages to alert health professionals to a temperature spike, a sign of infection in wounds.

The paper-thin structures, or synthetic skin, is made from jellified pectin - a naturally occurring substance found in berries, apples and other fruit - and enriched with calcium ions - molecules that have an electrical charge.
It senses temperature using a mechanism similar - but not identical - to the pit organ in vipers, located between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head, which allows the snakes to sense warm prey in the dark by detecting radiated heat.

In the pit organ, unique to this type of viper snake, ion channels within the sensory nerve fibres expand as temperature increases. This dilation allows calcium ions to flow, triggering electrical impulses.

A research paper about the synthetic skins, published in Science Robotics, says they accurately detected "tiny" temperature changes within a range of 10 to 55 degrees Celsius.

They also successfully sense warm bodies - in this case a microwaved teddy bear - up to one metre away.

Critically, the structures maintained stability and high sensitivity even after physical deformation, such as bending or twisting, a highly desirable characteristic for artificial skin.

While still in the very early stages of development, using the artificial skin for biomedical applications would be easy and economical, said Dr Chiara Dario, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied physics at Caltech (California Institute of Technology).

"Pectin is widely used in the food industry as a jellifying agent; it's what you use to make jam. So it's easy to obtain and also very cheap," Dr Dario said.

She envisions the technology also has the potential to be used in robotics.


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