There is increasing interest in creating bendable and stretchable electronic interfaces that can be worn or applied to virtually any surface. The electroactive polymer community is well placed to add value by incorporating sensors and actuators. Recent work has demonstrated transparent dielectric elastomer actuation as well as pressure, stretch or touch sensing. Here we present two alternative forms of sensing. The first uses ionically conductive and stretchable gels as electrodes in capacitive sensors that detect finger proximity. In this case the finger acts as a third electrode, reducing capacitance between the two gel electrodes as it approaches, which can be detected even during bending and stretching. Very light finger touch is readily detected even during deformation of the substrate. Lateral resolution is achieved by creating a sensor array. In the second approach, electrodes placed beneath a salt containing gel are able to detect ion currents generated by the deformation of the gel. In this approach, applied pressure results in ion currents that create a potential difference around the point of contact, leading to a voltage and current in the electrodes without any need for input electrical energy. The mechanism may be related to effects seen in ionomeric polymer metal composites (IPMCs), but with the response in plane rather than through the thickness of the film. Ultimately, these ionically conductive materials that can also be transparent and actuate, have the potential to be used in wearable devices.
A polyurethane hydrogel based touch sensor with high transparency and conformability is demonstrated. Polyurethane hydrogels swollen with various electrolytes were compressed at a pressure of 30 kPa, simulating a fingertap on a conventional touch screen device. Unlike ionic polymer metal composite and conducting polymer trilayer sensors, where electrodes render the sensors opaque and relatively rigid, the electrodes used in this work are metal wires or strips, separated from each other by regions of transparent film, enabling transparency and compliance. The voltages and currents observed when the perturbation is above one electrode are on the order of 10-2 V and 10-7 A, relative to a second electrode that is approximately 1 cm away. The sign of voltage and current signals detected from perturbations made between electrodes is determined by relative proximity to each electrode, and the magnitude appears to decrease with increasing distance from the electrodes. These observations suggest that it may be possible to discriminate the location of touch based on signals transmitted to the edges of an ionically conductive film. A model to describe the inhomogeneous ionic distribution and predict the resultant voltage and current is presented to qualitatively explain the sensing, based on the Donnan potential.