Researchers from NUS Biomedical Engineering have developed a first-of-its-kind liquid-based tactile sensor that can be used for a host of applications. Possible uses for the flexible and durable device range from soft robotics and wearable consumer electronics to smart medical prosthetic devices and real-time healthcare monitoring.
A tactile sensor measures properties based on physical interaction, after which the information is transmitted to a connecting analytical system. Existing devices, being in solid-state form, are generally rigid, thus inhibiting natural body movement and are prone to deformation and failure when pressure is exerted. NUS' innovative tactile sensor is fabricated on a flexible base such as silicone rubber, and uses an advanced two-dimensional nanomaterial in liquid form that is non-corrosive and non-toxic, rendering it safe and discreet while conforming to the required shape.
The team ' comprising graduate students Kenry and Yeo Joo Chuan, led by Professor Lim Chwee Teck ' subjected the device to a series of demanding tests, including pressing, bending and stretching, even to the extent of driving a car over it. The device performed extremely well, showing consistent readings throughout the tests, without impairing its functionality.
"This liquid-based microfluidic tactile sensor, which is the first of its kind, addresses an existing gap in the market. Being thin and flexible, the sensor gives a better fit when monitoring natural body movements. Its small size, durability and ease of production further differentiate this novel device from conventional tactile sensors. With the rapid advancement of healthcare and biomedical technologies as well as consumer electronics, we are optimistic about new possibilities to commercialise our invention, said Prof Lim. The new device would also be cheaper to fabricate compared to conventional tactile sensors, he added.
The team's device will further advance the applications of tactile sensors, increasingly being utilised for monitoring critical parameters in biomedical applications, especially those in contact with human skin or where human movement is highly versatile.
Prof Lim offered some potential applications of the new sensor, including physiotherapy as part of healthcare monitoring. The device, placed on a patient's finger, can measure the amount of force exerted as he flexes his finger. This will determine whether the patient is flexing the finger correctly or applying the appropriate amount of force. Another application is drug delivery via a skin patch, where medication, such as insulin, can be administered through microneedles into the body directly.
The research team filed a patent for their invention early this year and is keen to explore licensing partnerships in commercial development.