Spider Silk-Inspired Electronic Sensors to Refine Assistive Tech

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Cambridge University researchers developed new eco-friendly and lightweight electronic sensors inspired by spider silk.

  • The sensors are made from a water-based solution that allows precise control over the fibers’ spinnability.
  • These fibers are 50 times thinner than human hair, seamlessly integrating with biological surfaces like human skin and plant leaves.
  • The sensors offer a sustainable, low-emission alternative to traditional sensor manufacturing processes, producing minimal waste.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge developed a new generation of eco-friendly, lightweight electronic sensors inspired by the properties of spider silk.

Humans have always looked to nature for inspiration. This biomimicry has birthed things like Velcro, inspired by how Burdock burrs (those little spiky balls that cling to you in the forest) stick to clothes. But one animal that repeatedly inspired inventors is the spider. It was the muse for efficient robots and Orinlux Bird Protection Glass, which reflect UV light like spider webs do alerting birds to the webs’ presence. We’ve even repurposed their venom.

So, it comes as no surprise that these Cambridge researchers turned to the spider and its silk for their electronic sensors. They made them out of a water-based solution of PEDOT (a biocompatible conducting polymer that can carry electricity and is safe to be used inside the body), hyaluronic acid, and polyethylene oxide. The process gives the researchers precise control over the fiver’s spinnability.

Andy Wang, the first author of the study, highlighted the sustainability and ease of production. “It opens up a whole different angle in terms of how sustainable electronics and sensors can be made. It’s a much easier way to produce large area sensors,” Wang remarked.

Tiny But Mighty

They are so thin – 50 times thinner than human hair – that they can seamlessly integrate with biological surfaces, like human skin or plant leaves. According to the paper published in the latest issue of Nature Electronics, the team managed to print the imperceptible adaptive sensors right onto a dandelion seedhead without it collapsing.  

These spider silk-inspired electronic sensors provide a sustainable, low-emission alternative to traditional sensor manufacturing processes. So, the team is excited to discover how it can be applied in fields like healthcare, electronic textiles, and environmental monitoring.

When applied to human skin, these sensors conform naturally, exposing sweat pores and remaining undetectable to the wearer.

Professor Yan Yan Shery Huang from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the research, emphasized that the team was looking for imperceptibility, sustainability, and minimal waste.

Resonating Impact

Conventional high-resolution sensors require energy-intensive and chemically hazardous cleanroom production. However, electronic sensors can be produced in any setting using minimal energy. The fibers can also be repaired and simply washed away at the end of their lifecycle. All in all, they generate less than a single milligram of waste per use.

Professor Huang described how they “can put sensors almost anywhere and repair them where and when they need it, without needing a big printing machine or a centralized manufacturing facility. These sensors can be made on-demand, right where they’re needed, and produce minimal waste and emissions.”

Aside from the environmental benefits we stand to gain from this, once it’s perfected, it can be a hail Mary for bulky assistive technologies. Your healthcare provider could print the fibers directly onto your skin, allowing for continuous health monitoring without the usual discomfort. Heart monitors for example are bulky and tend to get in the way. If they were to integrate them into such a new type of heart monitor, the apparatus could become an afterthought for the patients, giving them a better quality of life.

Apart from that, prosthetics could also get an upgrade in the touch department. The electronic sensors’ conformity to biological surfaces could provide users with a more natural sense of touch and better control.

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