How jellyfish have helped to create glowing, pressure sensitive, robot skin

Also, newborn babies get light-up pyjamas and telescopes capture the flash from a feeding black hole

(Image credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer)

Jellyfish inspire glowing robot skin

Human skin has a built-in warning system that alerts us to damaging pressure. What if synthetic skin could do the same?

Current electronic skin is hyper-sensitive to soft touches but starts to falter as the pressure ramps up. Without an early warning system, robots and prosthetics are prone to damage. 

Now, the Huazhong University of Science and Technology has developed skin that glows when injury is imminent (opens in new tab). And it was inspired by a jellyfish.

(Image credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer)

The alarm jellyfish (opens in new tab) is a bright red sea creature that flashes when under attack. The researchers mimicked its skin by embedding silver nanowires in two layers of silicone film (opens in new tab). This creates an electrical signal under the slightest of pressure. 

They then added another layer of film containing luminescent materials called phosphors (opens in new tab). These glow brighter and brighter as the force goes up, responding to pressure changes with a colourful light show.

(Image credit: American Chemical Society)

The researchers say the resulting skin more closely mimics the real thing, with the added benefit of a visible warning system. The ultimate aim is to replicate the full range of sensitivity of human skin, creating robot senses that rival our own.

Light-up pyjamas for jaundiced newborns

A team at EMPA have developed LED-laced cloth (opens in new tab) that delivers blue light to infants. The glowing pyjamas could treat neonatal jaundice say its Swiss inventors.

(Image credit: EMPA)

According to the NHS, six out of every ten newborns develop jaundice (opens in new tab). It happens when the liver struggles to keep up with the breakdown of red blood cells. A compound called bilirubin (opens in new tab) starts to build up in the skin and eyes, turning the babies yellow.

Most get better on their own, but some need phototherapy treatment (opens in new tab) in a blue light incubator. The light breaks down the yellow pigment by 'photo-oxidation'. It adds oxygen to bilirubin, helping it to dissolve in water.

Babies need to stay under the light for a couple of days, wearing protective goggles and missing out on cuddles with their parents.  

(Image credit: Zoomstudio)

The new fabric promises to do away with the incubator. Battery-powered LEDs deliver light along fine optical fibres. These are woven to minimise the times the threads cross, allowing as much light to reach the skin as possible. 

The final material is a soft satin that's breathable and washable, as well as glowing sci-fi blue. The light from the prototype isn't yet strong enough to treat jaundice. But, the researchers say that this could be easily remedied with stronger LEDs.

(Image credit: EMPA)

Spying on a feeding black hole

Black holes spew jets of energy as they feed. Vast columns of hot plasma shoot out into space, producing bright flashes of light. 

They aren't yet fully understood, but an international team of scientists have measured how fast they switch on (opens in new tab).

The researchers have been watching V404 Cygni (opens in new tab), 7,800 light years away. It’s a black hole feeding on a star and, in June 2015, it coughed up a bright flash of light. According to the University of Southampton (opens in new tab), the energy could have torn through planets like a beam from the Death Star.

(Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Black holes trap matter in a swirling plane known as an accretion disk (opens in new tab). Objects spiral inwards in ever decreasing circles, becoming twisted by the extreme gravitational and magnetic fields. Plasma then pours away from the disk as vast glowing beams (opens in new tab) that approach the speed of light.

The x-ray emission at the start of the 2015 jet was picked up by NASA's NuSTAR telescope (opens in new tab). Then, 0.1 seconds later the ULTRACAM (opens in new tab) high-speed camera on the William Herschel Telescope (opens in new tab) spotted the visible light. 

It’s hard to see from this far away, but researchers from the University of Southampton calculate that the plasma shot up to 19,000 miles (30,000 km) before it started to glow.

“This discovery was made possible thanks to our camera gathering 28 frames per second. It demonstrates the untapped potential of studying astrophysical phenomena at high speeds.”

Prof Vik Dhillon, Uni. of Sheffield
Laura is lab escapee turned freelance writer with an unhealthy interest in science, technology and video games.