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S'pore scientist on prestigious innovators list

Dr Benjamin Tee has developed an electronic skin that could make prosthetic limbs as sensitive as human ones. He said some challenges need to be overcome before the skin can be put on prosthetic limbs or robots.
Dr Benjamin Tee has developed an electronic skin that could make prosthetic limbs as sensitive as human ones. He said some challenges need to be overcome before the skin can be put on prosthetic limbs or robots.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

MIT magazine puts A*Star researcher on its global Innovators Under 35 list for his work on electronic skin

A prestigious American magazine has named Singaporean scientist Benjamin Tee Chee Keong as an innovator to watch, after he developed an electronic skin that could make prosthetic limbs as sensitive as human ones.

Dr Tee, 33, a scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, is the only Singaporean on the MIT Technology Review's global Innovators Under 35 list this year.

The magazine is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and its annual list highlights young people whose work has the potential to change the world.

Dr Tee said he wanted to create an artificial skin that can replicate three properties of human skin - its high sensitivity, stretchability and self-healing ability.

One of the prototypes he developed is made up of millions of tiny rubber pieces each much smaller than the cross-section of a human hair. The tiny pieces allow the skin to sense pressure much more precisely, for example when a person grips a glass of water.

Stretchable electrodes are also embedded in the skin to convert the pressure into electric signals the brain can understand, so the person can "feel" the grip.

Dr Tee said he is researching how to send the signals to the brain. One method could involve wires that are surgically placed in contact with the nerves on the remaining part of the limb, although he aims to find a more direct way.

The artificial skin also contains chemical bonds that reattach themselves easily after they are torn. These "zippers" enable the skin to repair itself.

"This self-healing is crucial because, in everyday life, your skin would come in contact with lots of things and could get damaged easily," Dr Tee said.

He added, however, that several challenges need to be overcome before the skin can be put on prosthetic limbs or robots.

The prototype patch he has created is only about 100 sq cm.

"One of the hard parts will be figuring out how to manufacture the skin on a large scale," he said.

The electrodes also need a power source to work. This might require a battery in the prosthetic limb or piezoelectric materials, which generate an electric charge in response to applied pressure.

"Since the skin is just a lab-scale prototype for now, we'll also need to do a lot more testing to make it reliable for people to use every day," Dr Tee added.

He plans to work on other electronic skins that can, for example, sense temperature or acidity. Also on the cards are "smart" bandages that can detect chemicals in blood, to alert people to potential health risks such as heart attacks.

Dr Tee said he was "absolutely thrilled" to be named in the MIT Technology Review list. "It's nice to be recognised, and to have my years of staying late or overnight in the lab validated," he said.

The magazine's editor-in-chief and publisher Jason Pontin said in a statement: "Over the years, we've had success in choosing young innovators whose work has been profoundly influential in the direction of human affairs.

"We're proud to add Dr Tee to this prestigious list."

Previous honourees have included Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Nanyang Technological University's Assistant Professor Zhang Baile, who came up with a new type of invisibility cloak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2015, with the headline 'S'pore scientist on prestigious innovators list'. Print Edition | Subscribe