January 27, 2014


I adore cats. I have always been much more of a cat person than a dog person, mostly because I was never really around dogs much as a kid. But I almost always had a cat. At home, I had my beautiful calico named Princess (hey, I was five or so when I named her, so do not tease) and then there were the barn cats out at my grandparent’s farm, namely Tiger the Tomcat. Even now, I share this home with my roommate’s cat, Artemis, who continues to strike fear into all those who oppose her dominion over this domicile. So yeah, cats are kind of my thing in terms of pets. In addition to having more exposure to them than I have dogs, or really any other type of pet, I have always been fascinated by all the varying attributes that cats possess. Qualities like their keen vision, their incredible hearing, their ability to always land on their feet, to maintain their balance over the narrowest of beams, and even the ultra-sensitivity of their whiskers, allowing them to better navigate through dark and narrow places. Well, it seems I am not the only one who finds these little wire-like protrusions so interesting, as the latest invention in the field of nanotechnology just so happens to be the “E-Whiskers.”

Electronic whiskers, or “E-Whiskers” for short, have been designed by Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley. These are tactile sensors composed of composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles. These function very much like the sensitive whiskers of cats, which are hair-like feelers to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in compact spaces. These e-whiskers are incredibly sensitive, ten times more sensitive to pressure than any previously known capacitive or resistive pressure sensor. They are able to detect and respond to pressure as little as a single Pascal; if you were like me and did not know, a single Pascal is about the pressure a single dollar bill exerts against the surface of a table. So, what sort of applications might this nanotech cat-hairs have? Well, according to Ali Javey, a scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Material Sciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, these e-whiskers could give robots and other subjects the ability to “see” and “feel” their surrounding environment in a whole new way. In his own words, “Our e-whiskers represent a new type of highly responsive tactile sensor networks for real time monitoring of environmental effects. The ease of fabrication, light weight and excellent performance of our e-whiskers should have a wide range of applications for advanced robotics, human-machine user interfaces, and biological applications.”

So, does this mean that, in the future, we will have cat-like robots? Maybe not, but it is something I will look forward too anyway, hoping against all hope.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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