MIT Engineers Developed an Incredibly Strong Artificial Skin

They say the substance could also be used as long-lasting contacts, drug-delivering bandages, and more.

artificial skin

Photo by Melanie Gonick/MIT

MIT is at it again.

Engineers from the school have developed a substance that they say could eventually be used to make artificial skin, long-lasting contact lenses, drug-delivering bandages, and more. What is this miracle material?

It sounds decidedly un-sexy: a hydrogel coated with a water-trapping elastomer layer. But the science behind the product is actually quite exciting.

Hydrogels—stretchy polymers that you may remember from MIT’s “bandage of the future” experiment—typically dry out over time, rendering them virtually useless. Applying an elastomer layer that traps water, however, prevents the hydrogel from drying, opening the door to long-term uses.

“We hope this work will pave the way to synthetic skin, or even robots with very soft, flexible skin with biological functions,” lead engineer Xuanhe Zhao said in a statement.

In fact, the team’s design was inspired by human skin, and the bond between the inner dermis and the outer epidermis. They mimicked that bond by using UV light and a compound called benzophenone to fuse the hydrogel and elastomers together, even carving in tiny channels that could potentially act as mock blood vessels. The result? “This is tougher even than skin,” Zhao said in the statement. “We can also stretch the material to seven times its original length, and the bond still holds.”

The project is still in its early stages, and the statement doesn’t specify when, or if, MIT’s artificial skin might be available for clinical or commercial use. Still, it’s interesting to imagine a world where your medicine cabinet is stocked with hydrogel-elastomer hybrids instead of contact lenses and Band-Aids.