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New Study Uses Topography of Human Skin
October 1, 2019

Whether from regular use, overuse or abuse, every device is bound to develop cracks at some point. That’s just the nature of things.

Guy German, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Credit: Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Cracks can be especially dangerous, though, when working with biomedical devices that can mean life or death to a patient.

According to information, a new study from a Binghamton University research team uses the topography of human skin as a model not for preventing cracks but for directing them in the best way possible to avoid critical components and make repairs easy.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is led by Binghamton University Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Guy German and PhD student Christopher Maiorana. For the study, Maiorana engineered a series of single-layer and dual-layer membranes from silicone-based polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), an inert and nontoxic material used in biomedical research. Embedded into the layers are tiny channels meant to guide any cracks that form – which, when part of a biomedical device, would give more control over how the cracks form. Potential damage could go around critical areas of flexible electronics, for instance, increasing its functional lifespan.

“In this relatively new field of hyperelastic materials – materials that can really stretch – there’s been a lot of work, but not in the area of fracture control,” Prof. German said. “Fracture control has only been explored in more brittle materials.”

What’s particularly important, Maiorana and Prof. German said, is having PDMS as the basis for the flexible membrane, since it is known for its wide variety of uses. The study also integrates other common materials.

“We do it without using any exotic material,” Maiorana said. “We’re not inventing some new metal or ceramic. We’re using rubber or modifying normal glass to do these things. We’ve taken this really basic idea and made it functional.”

Prof. German’s ongoing research on human skin made him realize that the outermost layer – known as the stratum corneum – exhibits a network of v-shaped topographical microchannels that appear to be capable of guiding fractures to the skin.

This study began with the idea of recreating this effect in nonbiological materials. Previous attempts to direct microcracks have utilized more solid means, such as copper films around the most sensitive parts of flexible electronics components.

The study “Embedding topography enables fracture guidance in soft solids” also included research from Mitchell Erbe, Travis Blank and Zachary Lipsky. It was supported by Prof. German’s National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

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