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Flexible sensor lets humans detect magnetic fields

A newly developed thin, flexible magnetic sensor could heighten human perception, and it's pliable enough to be crumpled and scrunched while retaining functionality.

The sensor on a soap bubble. IFW Dresden

When it comes to navigating the world around us, we have a lot more than just five senses. The array of perceptive faculties we have is actually pretty impressive, but what we don't have is a sense called magnetoception.

This is a sense that allows some living organisms, such as sharks, birds and insects, to orient themselves in the physical world by detecting magnetic fields. This includes actual location, altitude and direction -- and for humans, it would be extremely useful.

We may be able to replicate magnetoception by way of an implant or external sensor -- such as a new device developed by a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden, Germany and the TU Chemnitz in close collaboration with partners at the University of Tokyo and Osaka University in Japan, led by Dr Denys Makarov.

Make no mistake, though -- the function is not the least remarkable feature of this device. It is so thin, light and flexible that it can be attached to the skin, where it will bend and crease without losing any of its functionality.

The sensor is less than 2 micrometres thick, and only weighs 3 grams per square metre -- so light they can be laid on a soap bubble without breaking it. They can also withstand extreme bending with radii of less than three micrometres, able to be crumpled like a piece of paper.

Moreover, the device can stretch to more than 270 percent and for over 1,000 cycles without fatigue -- which means it can be placed on the palm of the hand, a highly flexible zone, without deterioration.

"[The sensors] are... imperceptible magneto-sensitive skin that enables proximity detection, navigation and touchless control," the paper's abstract reads.

The sensor on the palm of a hand (left) and crumpled into a tiny ball (right) IFW Dresden

"These ultra-thin magnetic field sensors readily conform to ubiquitous objects including human skin and offer a new sense for soft robotics, safety and healthcare monitoring, consumer electronics and electronic skin devices."

At the moment, the sensors don't provide tactile feedback to the user. Instead, they are connected to an array of LEDs. When the wearer moves the sensor close to a magnetic field, the sensor is shown to be operational when the LED array lights up. Although this might be a bit unwieldy for everyday human use, it could be ideal for robotics.

"The integration of magnetoelectronics with ultrathin functional elements such as solar cells, light-emitting diodes, transistors, as well as temperature and tactile sensor arrays, will enable autonomous and versatile smart systems with a multitude of sensing and actuation features," the team concluded.

They hope their work will "inspire a diverse number of devices that will benefit from a 'sixth sense' magnetoception."

You can read the full paper online in the journal Nature.