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Electronic Second Skins Are the Wearables of the Future

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The skin is the largest organ in our body, and also the most complex. Peer at it under a microscope and you’ll see thousands of nerve endings that keep the brain connected to the outside world and allow us to feel touch, pressure, and pain. But when Zhenan Bao looks at it, she sees something else.

For Bao, a chemical engineer focused on making polymers, the skin is not only a sensory organ, but also a material. One that, in her words, is flexible, but also stretchable, self-healing, and biodegradable. Bao works in the emerging field of electronic skin and has made it her mission to recreate the many functions of human skin for use in prosthetics and robotics. For people who wear artificial limbs, a sense of touch would immeasurably improve their quality of life—enabling them to distinguish soft from hard and to notice the dangerously sharp or the scaldingly hot before they can do any damage.

When Bao joined Stanford University in 2004, few researchers were working on flexible sensors that could be wrapped around an artificial hand to mimic the sense of touch, and Bao’s…



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