New Sensitive Optical Pressure Sensors

A new type of pressure sensor based on light could allow the creation of sensitive arti­ficial skins to give robots a better sense of touch, wearable blood-pressure monitors for humans and optically transparent touch screens and devices. Korean researchers developed a sensor that detects pressure by analyzing changes in the amount of light tra­veling through tiny tunnels embedded in poly­dimethyl­siloxane (PDMS), a common type of silicone. The flexible, transparent device is sensitive to even gentle pressure and is less prone to failure compared to previous types of pressure sensors. It also should be feasible to incor­porate the embedded optical sensors across a large surface area, researchers say.

The pressure sensor consists of a series of waveguides running alongside one another. Where the gap between the waveguides narrows, light from the first channel can jump into the second channel. Higher pressure makes the gap narrower, allowing more light to move out of channel 1 and into channel 2. (Source: Suntak Park, ETRI)

“The silicone sheet can be placed on display panels to enable touch screens, or can be wrapped on robot surfaces as an artificial skin layer for tactile inter­actions,” says Suntak Park, Elec­tronic and Tele­communi­cations Research Institute, Daejeon, South Korea. “Consi­dering that PDMS is a very well-known bio-compatible, non-toxic material, the sensor sheet may even be applied on or inside the human body, for example, to monitor blood pressure.”
Measuring pressure distri­bution over a curved surface can be important in research areas such as aero­dynamics and fluid dynamics. Park says the sensors could be useful for studying pressure-related effects on the surfaces of aircraft, auto­mobiles and ships.

Most existing pressure sensors are based on elec­tronics. Piezo­resistive sensors, for instance, which are often used as accelero­meters, flow meters and air-pressure sensors, change their electrical resistance when subjected to mechanical strain. The problem with electronic systems is that they can be subject to electro­magnetic inter­ference from power sources, nearby instruments and charged objects. They also contain metal components, which can block light and be subject to corro­sion.

“Our approach is almost free from such problems because the sensing device is embedded in the middle of a sheet made of sili­cone rubber,” says Park. “When compared to electrical approaches, our optical approach is parti­cularly suitable for appli­cations that take advan­tage of large-area feasi­bility, resistance to electro­magnetic inter­ference, and high visual trans­parency.” The device works by measuring the flow of light through a precisely arranged photonic tunnel-junction array. “The pressure-sensi­tive photonic tunnel-junction array consists of light-guiding channels where external pressure changes the bright­ness of the light trans­mitted through them,” Park says. “This is similar to how a valve or faucet works at a flow-splitting node.”

The waveguides run parallel to each other and are embedded in PDMS. For part of their length they are close enough that light passing through the first tube, channel 1, can pass into the second, channel 2. When pressure is applied, the PDMS is com­pressed, changing the spacing between the channels and allowing more light to move into channel 2. The pressure also causes a change in the refractive index of the PDMS, altering the light. Light enters the device through an optical fiber on one end and is collected by a photo­diode on the other. As pressure increases, more light winds up in channel 2 and less in channel 1. Measuring the bright­ness of the light coming out of the far end of each channel tells the researchers how much pressure was applied.

Though other optical pressure sensors have been developed, this is the first to embed the sensing structure within PDMS. Being embedded protects it from conta­minants. To test the device the researchers placed a pressing stub on top of the sensor and gradually increased the pressure. In a sensor that was 5 mm long embedded in a 50-µm thick sheet of PDMS, the researchers measured a change in optical power of 140 % at a pressure of approximately 40 kilo­pascals (kPa). This proof-of-concept demon­stration suggests the device is capable of sensing pressure as low as 1 kPa, roughly the same level of sensi­tivity as a human finger. The change in blood pressure between heartbeats is about 5 kPa.

Park says several steps are needed to move the sensor from a labora­tory demon­stration to a practical device. One is to develop a simpler way to attach the optical fibers that move light into and out of the sensor. In developing their proto­type, the research team used precision alignment tools, which would be too expensive and time-consuming to use in most commer­cial appli­cations. An alternative approach, known as pigtail fibers, which tele­communi­cations companies use to couple fibers in their systems, should make the process easier.

In addition, the team tested their approach with a 1-dimen­sional sensor, whereas most appli­cations would require a 2-dimen­sional array of sensors. That can probably be accom­plished by rotating a one-dimen­sional sheet 90 degrees and placing it on top of another, creating a cross-hatched array. The size of the sensors and the spacing between them would also likely need to be optimized for different appli­cations. (Source: OSA)

Reference: J. W. Yoon et al.: Elastomer thin-film pressure sensor based on embedded photonic tunnel-junction arrays, Opt. Lett. 43, 3953 (2018); DOI: 0.1364/OL.43.003953

Link: Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute ETRI, Daejeon, South Korea

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