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R. Iglio,S. Mariani, V. Robbiano,L.Strambini and G. Barillaro. Flexible Polydimethylsiloxane Foams Decorated with Multiwalled Carbon Nanotubes Enable Unprecedented Detection of Ultralow Strain and Pressure Coupled with a Large Working Range.

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ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces   DOI 10.1021/acsami.8b02322

Low-cost piezoresistive strain/pressure sensors with large working range, at the same time able to reliably detect ultralow strain (≤0.1%) and pressure (≤1 Pa), are one of the challenges that have still to be overcome for flexible piezoresistive materials toward personalized health-monitoring applications. In this work, we report on unprecedented, simultaneous detection of ultrasmall strain (0.1%, i.e., 10 μm displacement over 10 mm) and subtle pressure (20 Pa, i.e., a force of only 2 mN over an area of 1 cm2) in compression mode, coupled with a large working range (i.e., up to 60% for strain—6 mm in displacement—and 50 kPa for pressure) using piezoresistive, flexible three-dimensional (3D) macroporous polydimethylsiloxane (pPDMS) foams decorated with pristine multiwalled carbon nanotubes (CNTs). pPDMS/CNT foams with pore size up to 500 μm (i.e., twice the size of those of commonly used foams, at least) and porosity of 77%, decorated with a nanostructured surface network of CNTs at densities ranging from 7.5 to 37 mg/cm3 are prepared using a low-cost and scalable process, through replica molding of sacrificial sugar templates and subsequent drop-casting of CNT ink. A thorough characterization shows that piezoresistive properties of the foams can be finely tuned by controlling the CNT density and reach an optimum at a CNT density of 25 mg/cm3, for which a maximum change of the material resistivity (e.g., ρ050 = 4 at 50% strain) is achieved under compression. Further static and dynamic characterization of the pPDMS/CNT foams with 25 mg/cm3 of CNTs highlights that detection limits for strain and pressure are 0.03% (3 μm displacement over 10 mm) and 6 Pa (0.6 mN over an area of 1 cm2), respectively; moreover, good stability and limited hysteresis are apparent by cycling the foams with 255 compression–release cycles over the strain range of 0–60%, at different strain rates up to 10 mm/min. Our results on piezoresistive, flexible pPDMS/CNT foams pave the way toward breakthrough applications for personalized health care, though not limited to these, which have not been fully addressed to date with flexible strain/stress sensors.