Researcher turns £1 make-up sponge into sensor with potential to improve medical care

A Liverpool Hope University student has found a revolutionary way to improve medical care using a simple silicone make-up sponge – bought from a high street chemist.

Alexander Co Abad discovered the £1 beauty product could form the main component of a sensor designed to be as sensitive as human skin when it comes to providing ‘touch’ feedback.

He also says there’s the potential for it to be used in a range of medical procedures – from helping robotic arms to grip instruments during surgery, to even detecting tumours.

Alexander’s work has been centred on advancing something called the ‘GelSight’ sensor, first created back in 2009 by scientists at America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Alexander is from Manila and is currently working towards a PhD at Hope through a scholarship from the Philippine government. He had been “fascinated” by the product since it was introduced to him by his research supervisor, but wanted to make it even more accessible to medical professionals.

To do that he created a homemade, low-cost version of the sensor which utilises an UltraViolet (UV) torch, an LED light and a webcam to provide a highly detailed visual 3D ‘map’ of any surface it touches.

He says the gadget can spot details not detectable with the human eye, as well as picking up slight vibrations and variations in pressure.

Alexander, who is studying computer science and informatics while specialising in robotics, said: ” The idea of the sensor is to be as sensitive as human skin when it comes to ‘touch’ – meaning it can detect the smallest details on the surface of a coin, for example, or even the tiniest vibrations.

“When attached to a robot’s finger, it is able to sense your pulse. And it can even differentiate between rough and smooth surfaces.

“The overall concept is to enable a robot to feel and sense like a human would, which gives it many advantages for medical work.

“Another application it can be used for is to detect things under the skin, so potentially in the future it could be used to check for tumours or to detect possible lumps in the breast.”

Alexander believes that another key application is in helping a robot arm to grip. He said: “Right now there’s a problem in the robotics community when it comes to gripping.

“Sometimes the object a robotic arm touches is so smooth there’s a tendency for it to slide when gripped. We need a sensor to measure this slip so that we can increase the gripping force, and that’s where this technology comes into play.”

Alexander’s dream is for the sensor to be used during surgery. He explained that endoscopic procedures, where a doctor can examine internal organs using a camera, is another example where the sensor could be effective as it could give doctors extra feedback about activity within the human body.

The student began his studies at Hope back in 2019, having come to Liverpool from De La Salle University in Manila, and began his research to create a low cost version of a sensor that replicates the qualities of human skin.

He said: “I thought the best place to start would be shops that sell cosmetics.

“I first noticed a pink sponge and realised that, if I took off the layer of coloured sponge, I had the silicone I needed for just £1 and that’s the basic component for the technology.

“I then put a camera on one side so you can see and record the object touching the silicone, and managed to make something for a very low cost.”

As a teacher in the electronics and communications engineering department at De La Salle University, Alexander is eventually planning to take his newfound knowledge back to the Philippines while continuing his research in his home city once he has graduated from Hope.

Now in the final year of his studies in Liverpool, Alexander is continuing his research and looking for new ways to improve his device, including the addition of temperature sensing capabilities.