Airflow sensing with arrays of hydrogel supported artificial hair cells

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Virginia Tech

Arrays of fully hydrogel-supported, artificial hair cell (AHC) sensors based on bilayer membrane mechanotransduction are designed and characterized to determine sensitivity to multiple stimuli. The work draws upon key engineering design principles inspired by the characteristics of biological hair cells, primarily the use of slender hair-like structures as flow measurement elements. Many hair cell microelectromechanical (MEMS) devices to sense fluid flow have already been built based on this principle. However, recent developments in lipid bilayer applications, namely physically encapsulated bilayers and hydrogel interface bilayers, have facilitated the development of AHCs made primarily from biomolecular materials. The most current research in this field of "membrane based AHCs," shows promise, yet still lacks the modularity to create large sensor arrays similar to those in nature.

This paper presents a novel bilayer based AHC platform, developed for array implementation by applying some of the core design principles of biological hair cells. These principles are translated into key design, fabrication and material considerations toward improved sensor sensitivity and modularity. Single hair cell responses to base excitation and short air pulses are to investigate the dynamic coupling between hair and bilayer membrane transducer. In addition, a spectral analysis of the AHC system under varying voltages and air flow velocities helps to build simple, predictive models for the sensitivity properties of the AHC. And finally, based on these results, we implement a spatial sensing strategy that involves mapping frequency content to stimulus location by "tuning" linear, three-unit arrays of AHCs.

Individual AHC sensors characterization results demonstrate peak current outputs in the nanoamp range and measure flow velocities as high as 72 m/s. Characterization of the AHC response to base excitation and air pulses show that membrane current oscillates with the first three bending modes of the hair. Output magnitudes reflect of vibrations near the base of the hair. A 2 degree-of-freedom Rayleigh-Ritz approximation of the system dynamics yields estimates of 19 N/m and 0.0011 Nm/rad for the equivalent linear and torsional stiffness of the hair's hydrogel base, although double modes suggest non-symmetry in the gel's linear stiffness. The sensor output scales linearly with applied voltage (1.79 pA/V), avoiding a higher-order dependence on electrowetting effects. The free vibration amplitude of the sensor also increases in a linear fashion with applied airflow pressure (3.39 pA/m s??).

Array sensing tests show that the bilayers' consistent spectral responses allow for an accurate localization of the airflow source. However, temporal variations in bilayer size affect sensitivity properties and make airflow magnitude estimation difficult. The overall successful implementation of the array sensing method validates the sensory capability of the bilayer based AHC.

frequency decomposition, spectral analysis, artificial hair cell, array sensing, lipid bilayer