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Illustration by Rednex/

Shrimp Cocktail

Imagine this: you break from your desk job at lunch to get some exercise, change into your workout wear, and en route to the gym, a colleague asks: Is that scampi e-skin you’re wearing?

Malcolm Xing and his University of Manitoba team partnered with researchers in China to develop a self-healing electronic skin made from an unlikely biomaterial: shrimp.

This sensor technology could be made into clothing, worn while exercising to monitor our heart rate, temperature and muscle movement—offering a full-body machine interface that, incredibly, heals itself if torn.

With researchers at the Military Medical University in Chongqing, they developed what is essentially a conductive hydrogel that is stretchable, sensitive to pressure and able to repair itself, much like human skin.

“This is a real breakthrough and is the first of its kind,” says Xing, a professor of mechanical engineering, and biochemistry and genetics. “It’s a polymer created from natural materials that has exceptional properties such as super-elongation, quick reparation and 3-D printability.”

They combined an organic and conductive polymer with chitosan, a material made from the shells of shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans. Chitosan is known for its antibacterial properties and ability to rapidly clot blood.

Within 30 seconds, the e-skin can recover 90 per cent of its electrical properties, and within two minutes, it can heal itself entirely, says Xing, whose findings were recently published in the journal Advanced Materials.

The new material can be used in a 3-D printer and applied to a variety of surfaces.

It could even help bring to life self-healing human prosthetics, Xing notes. It’s very pliable, and he compares it to stretchy, sticky chewing gum—except that it contains sensors to interface with computers.

“We can print the device onto a garment to monitor body temperature, humidity and heart rate, and the garment will then become ‘smart’: able to make some changes in the textile’s structure— like modifying its colour— or send out emergency information through a cellphone if it sensed damage to its wearer.”

The team wants to also find out if the e-skin could go beyond self-monitoring a human to remotely controlling a robot.

Xing has been working on numerous applications related to his research, including using stem cells to boost hair regrowth, manufacturing artificial muscles, and even making replacement plastic ears for children born without external earlobes.

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