Japanese and US researchers have developed a flexible and transparent pressure sensor composed of a carbon nanotube weave that retains its accuracy even when curved around soft surfaces like human skin.
Conventional pressure sensors lose much of their accuracy when they are deformed or curved, but this new sensor can remain accurate when bent up to a radius of 80 micrometres, or roughly twice the width of a human hair.
"Our simulations show that these fibers change their relative alignment to accommodate bending deformation, thus reducing the strain in individual fibers," the authors write in Nature Nanotechnology.
While it's unlikely most health workers would ever need to monitor such intensely small curves, it shows just how far the new sensor could help us in measuring pressure in rounded physical objects.
The sensor, measuring just 8 micrometres thick, can detect pressure in 144 locations at once, and might one day enable health workers to physically screen patients for things like breast cancer tumors using pressure-sensitive gloves incorporating the technology.
"Flexible electronics have great potential for implantable and wearable devices," said lead researcher Sungwon Lee from the University of Tokyo. "I realized that many groups are developing flexible sensors that can measure pressure but none of them are suitable for measuring real objects since they are sensitive to distortion. That was my main motivation and I think we have proposed an effective solution to this problem."
The scientists say their pressure sensor could be used in a range of applications involving soft robotics and medical systems, and have begun preliminary experiments to demonstrate the powers of the nanofibres.