AsianScientist (Mar. 16, 2016) – Human skin is a pretty incredible thing. It is elastic, flexible, self-healing and waterproof, and can sense infinitesimal changes to touch, temperature changes, pressure and pain.
Now, imagine an electronic ‘skin’ that can do all of these things, and maybe even better than the real deal, at that. Benjamin Tee’s research centers on developing electronic skin technologies—flexible and stretchable electronics for sensing applications. This opens up many possibilities in the field of soft robotics and prosthetic devices.
Tee’s e-skin innovations have attracted plenty of attention in recent years; most recently, he was chosen as one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators under 35 in 2015.
Currently carrying out research at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore, Tee also recently co-founded Privi Medical, a seed-funded company looking at gastro-intestinal medical technology innovations.
We catch up with him for this month’s Asia’s Rising Scientists to hear about his latest research.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
Creating next-generation sensor technologies for human machine interfaces, robots and healthcare.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
There are really quite a few that I’m proud of, but if I had to choose one, it would be the project on self-healing skin sensors. I vividly remember that I had conceived this idea while cooking lasagna. I was distracted and accidentally cut my finger. At that instant, I experienced an ‘eureka’ moment.
I realized that no one in the research community had demonstrated a material that, like real skin, can heal itself repeatably and sense mechanical forces. The birth of this idea led to the creation of the first-ever repeatably self-healing sensor material that can be used to sense mechanical forces.
What I also really like about this project is that it made being a scientist and engineer cool and interesting to the younger generation. For instance, we received many emails from high school and middle school students about this work after it was published.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I think my research on creating smart materials and devices comparable to or even better than the human skin can have a big impact on several industries—most notably, robotics and medicine.
To date, we have yet to reach the scale of density and integration that our human skin is capable of. For example, on a single hand, there could be more than 30,000 sensors capable of sensing pressure, vibration, temperature, humidity and pain. Having sensor materials capable of scaling large areas could enable intelligent robots and life-like prosthetic devices.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I love to apply scientific and technical knowledge to build products because I have a strong desire to make things that people need and would use. Making sensor devices that can understand the environment for smarter electronics seemed like a great match.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
One significant challenge of developing new materials and devices is that it’s impossible to know whether the idea or concept works until the material is made and processed into working devices. Numerous iterations are required, and each iteration takes up a significant amount of time and effort.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
I think there are several challenges facing academic research today. Perhaps the biggest challenge today for academic researchers is the compressing timeline to demonstrate tangible outcomes from their research.
I think there is a need to bridge the gap between curiosity-driven research and product-driven innovations. Both types of research are necessary and equally important, and I believe we can bridge this gap when basic scientists and applied researchers collaborate effectively on critical society challenges.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I think I would have become a medical doctor instead. Fortunately, in my current field of work, I get to collaborate with many talented clinicians in my cross-disciplinary research activities.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I enjoy swimming, hiking or jogging for relaxation.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I think advancing healthcare is a cause I hope to contribute to. My research aims to enable smarter devices and robots. One of the challenges that I am tackling is how to create prosthetic devices that are as good as the original by endowing them with a sense of touch.
The touch sensors in our skin are very low-powered, and yet they allow us to distinguish different textures and enable high dexterity. I envision a world where losing a limb due to accidents or disease will no longer be as debilitating to normal life as it is now.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Asia is an exciting place with ample opportunities to make an impact because it is home to more than four billion people. Indonesia, for example, is the 4th most populous country in the world.
I think the scientific and technological ecosystem here is growing rapidly and emerging economies will transit towards higher value add activities. My advice to aspiring researchers would be to make connections with scientists beyond their research area and even home country.
By leveraging on each other’s expertise, we can work together to capitalize on existing and emerging opportunities to create impactful technologies and innovations.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Phillips Huang/Benjamin Tee.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.