Knowledge Is Skin Deep


We all know how sensitive human fingertips are – be it feeling a baby’s face or handling a hot pan. Now two chemical engineers have come up with a robotic device that can mimic that sensitivity and this could greatly help, giving minimally invasive surgery the touch sensation. Professor Ravi F. Saraf and his doctoral student Vivek Maheshwari at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, have developed a self-assembling nanoparticle device that may tell surgeons whether they have excised a tumor in its entirety. It is a capability beyond that of other mechanical devices available currently. 


“The touch resolution of the human finger is 40 microns (40 millionths of a meter),” says Saraf, a professor of chemical engineering. “Using nanoparticles, we can attain resolution close to human touch, which is about 50 times better than what is out there today.”

While the devices available currently are low resolution and rigid, this new device is cheaper and also self-assembles at room temperature and is flexible enough to cover complex shapes. It can be used for a number of projects, says Maheshwari, especially  medical procedures, similar to endoscopies, where the instrument is coated with this device and can enter the body, helping the surgeon to actually feel the kind of tissues there are, and how far the tumor has spread.

“Since it functions as artificial skin,” he says, “you can also use it on robots to make them more human like, give them a sense of touch and get them to do more complex tasks which are not possible today, with the kind of robotic systems we have. If a robot is on some remote surface, like Mars or Moon, then the sense of touch becomes essential.”  

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