There was always something about carbon nanotubes that captivated you. These cylindrical molecules, which are allotropes or carbon, have been found to have unusual properties which make them highly useful in material sciences, electronics and optics. Their unique property to form into different shapes and structures which are flexible yet strong has been exploited in many fields. Today, these carbon nanotubes which have been semi-conductor enriched, have been transformed into what can be called as 'electronic skin' by the researchers in the Berkeley Labs of the Department of Energy.
The technique that they have pioneered makes it possible to create inexpensively on a large scale, thin films of transistors that are termed as electronic skin. The potential and possibilities for this creation are endless. Computers that can be worn as clothes, intelligent gauze bandages that help healing and computers that can be folded like handkerchiefs into pockets are no longer limited to the realms of science fiction now!
How the 'electronic skin' was made
The carbon nanotube selected for the project was graphene. This allotrope of carbon is found naturally as sheets of carbon atoms which are one atom thick in their packing. Its structure at the nano level is like that of chicken wire and that makes it clear as to why it was chosen. Graphene in nature exists in two forms - a metallic one and a semi-conducting one. Though it can be used as it is for making thin-film transistors, the conductivity is low and this makes it less useful. The researchers thus purified the solution of carbon nanotubes to get a mixture that was 99 percent in the semi-conductor form.
Once that was done, the core of the processing was complete. The team laser-cut hexagonal stretchable cells into a thin polyamide sheet. On the cells thus created, layers of silicon and aluminium oxide were deposited. The final layer was that of the carbon nanotubes. Thus was ready an active matrix of transistors on a thin film. The researchers then had to simply wire up this thin film to a computer to create a pressure sensor that was 24 square centimetres with 96 pixels.
The pressure sensor that was thus created proved to be very strong. A heavy weight was placed and support on the extended sensor and it did not seem to have any problems bearing its weight. Thus it was that plastic electronics, created through carbon nanotubes over polyamide, gave rise to electronic skins whose applications will definitely be revolutionary.
When it is said that this creation will be revolutionary, it truly refers to world-changing capabilities!
Consider a situation where you wear your computer to work! These thin sheets could be built into your formals or casuals so that you can have a truly mobile office! So, if you see your colleague in a thick overcoat seemingly outperforming you, you know the reason why! And you could chat with your kids at home via the touch interface built into the cuff of your shirt! Well, we have not yet developed flexible high resolution displays to go along but we can always fall back on contact lens displays! Another exciting prospect for the electronic skin is to work in collaboration with brain-computer interfaces. These interfaces have been found to allow people to navigate through 3D space simply through brain waves. Combine these two technologies and the possibilities are simply awesome.
The medical profession too has its fair share of excitement at this development. It allows for the creation of an intelligent bandage. The bandage will then be able to assess the level of infection, healing and other parameters of an injury which the doctor can make use of before making a decision on the next plan of action. In fact, these intelligent bandages could be made to deliver the necessary medicines themselves. Since the polymers are acceptable within the body, we could see pacemakers being designed with the electronic skin that wraps around the heart and is as intelligent as the naturally occurring one.
Day-to-day life enhancements
Just think about food labels that warn you against spoilage and direct you on what has to be done. Flexible solar cells can be made to sit pretty on any surface and generate 'green' energy on a continuous basis.
The potential that this breakthrough at the Berkeley Labs carries is simply tremendous. It can only be our fond hope that it is put to good use to serve mankind in an inexpensive manner.