Research ArticleSENSORS

Sustainable manufacturing of sensors onto soft systems using self-coagulating conductive Pickering emulsions

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Science Robotics  26 Feb 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 39, eaay3604
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aay3604

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Compliant sensors based on composite materials are necessary components for geometrically complex systems such as wearable devices or soft robots. Composite materials consisting of polymer matrices and conductive fillers have facilitated the manufacture of compliant sensors due to their potential to be scaled in printing processes. Printing composite materials generally entails the use of solvents, such as toluene or cyclohexane, to dissolve the polymer resin and thin down the material to a printable viscosity. However, such solvents cause swelling and decomposition of most polymer substrates, limiting the utility of the composite materials. Moreover, many such conventional solvents are toxic or otherwise present health hazards. Here, sustainable manufacturing of sensors is reported, which uses an ethanol-based Pickering emulsion that spontaneously coagulates and forms a conductive composite. The Pickering emulsion consists of emulsified polymer precursors stabilized by conductive nanoparticles in an ethanol carrier. Upon evaporation of the ethanol, the precursors are released, which then coalesce amid nanoparticle networks and spontaneously polymerize in contact with the atmospheric moisture. We printed the self-coagulating conductive Pickering emulsion onto a variety of soft polymeric systems, including all-soft actuators and conventional textiles, to sensitize these systems. The resulting compliant sensors exhibit high strain sensitivity with negligible hysteresis, making them suitable for wearable and robotic applications.

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