One of the hardest tasks in making fashion technology and wearable tech “smart” in the sustainable sense of the word, is finding a way to deal with or prevent the creation of e-waste. The United Nations University in their “Global E-Waste Monitor 2014) forecasted that the amount of global e-waste generation expected to be 49.8 million tons in 2018, with an annual 4-5 percent growth. The good news is that researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder might have found a way to develop an electronic skin, or e-skin, that according the a recent Science Advances article, could reduce e-waste.
While e-skin may sound very futuristic, it actually is not a new concept to the market. Back in 2010, scientists at Stanford University and at the University of California, Berkeley, developed artificial skin that could feel even the gentlest of touches. But what sets the University of Colorado Boulder’s e-skin apart from the others is the fact that it can not only heal itself but it can be recycled back into e-skin. Thus, holding great potential for advancing the capabilities of robots as well as helping tackle the e-waste crisis.
The recyclable e-skin looks like a thin, yellow adhesive sticker and can be attached to the body like a patch. The thin film is equipped with humidity, pressure, temperature and air-flow sensors. Laced with silver nanoparticles, which allow the device to bend and move with curved spaces similarly to fingers or toes, the device is made of three commercially available compounds mixed in a matrix. When the electronic skin is torn apart, the mixture of these three compounds allow the ‘wound’ to ‘heal’ itself by re-creating chemical bonds of the separated parts, restoring the matrix. It only takes a few minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 30 minutes at room temperature for the self-healing process to take place.
Additionally, when the divided parts are entirely broken, the material could be soaked in a solution that separates out the silver nanoparticles to liquefy it so that it can be recycled into new e-skin. This process takes about 30 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 hours at room temperature.
This is an application that could be helpful in the field of robotics and prosthetic development. It has the potential to enhance biomedical and wearable health devices. For example, amputees will be able to sense temperature and pressure on prosthetic limbs, mimicking the function and mechanical properties of human skin. This is an advancement that could have a significant advantage in the field of wearables, smart textiles and fashion tech.
Furthermore, the latest development at the University of Colorado Boulder is that e-skin is virtually waste-free. This is essential and necessary because e-waste is a worldwide problem that is growing fast. It is a problem that carries an incomprehensible amount of toxic chemicals that would most likely make a wearable tech enthusiast feel a bit uncomfortable.
On improving the e-waste problem, study co-author Jianliang Xiao, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering of the University of Colorado Boulder research team stated, “We want to make electronics to be environmentally friendly.” He continued, “This particular device won’t produce any waste. What is unique here is that the chemical bonding of polyimine we use allows the e-skin to be both self-healing and fully recyclable at room temperature,” said Xiao. He also stated, he could see a future where you can reuse materials from old electronics by just soaking a cell phone or laptop in a solution to recycle them.
It will be interesting to see how these enhancements will be integrated into the wearable technology of the future.