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Microfluidic Channel-Based Soft Electrodes and Their Application in Capacitive Pressure Sensing

Published: March 17, 2023 doi: 10.3791/65175


Flexible electrodes have a wide range of applications in soft robotics and wearable electronics. The present protocol demonstrates a new strategy to fabricate highly stretchable electrodes with high resolution via lithographically defined microfluidic channels, which paves the way for future high-performance soft pressure sensors.


Flexible and stretchable electrodes are essential components in soft artificial sensory systems. Despite recent advances in flexible electronics, most electrodes are either restricted by the patterning resolution or the capability of inkjet printing with high-viscosity super-elastic materials. In this paper, we present a simple strategy to fabricate microchannel-based stretchable composite electrodes, which can be achieved by scraping elastic conductive polymer composites (ECPCs) into lithographically embossed microfluidic channels. The ECPCs were prepared by a volatile solvent evaporation method, which achieves a uniform dispersion of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in a polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) matrix. Compared to conventional fabrication methods, the proposed technique can facilitate the rapid fabrication of well-defined stretchable electrodes with high-viscosity slurry. Since the electrodes in this work were made up of all-elastomeric materials, strong interlinks can be formed between the ECPCs-based electrodes and the PDMS-based substrate at the interfaces of the microchannel walls, which allows the electrodes to exhibit mechanical robustness under high tensile strains. In addition, the mechanical-electric response of the electrodes was also systematically studied. Finally, a soft pressure sensor was developed by combining a dielectric silicone foam and an interdigitated electrodes (IDE) layer, and this demonstrated great potential for pressure sensors in soft robotic tactile sensing applications.


Soft pressure sensors have been widely explored in applications such as pneumatic robotic grippers1, wearable electronics2, human-machine interface systems3, etc. In such applications, the sensory system requires flexibility and stretchability to ensure conformal contact with arbitrary curvilinear surfaces. Therefore, it requires all the essential components, including the substrate, the transducing element, and the electrode, to provide consistent functionality under extreme deformation conditions4. Moreover, to maintain high sensing performance, it is essential to keep the changes in the soft electrodes to the minimum level to avoid interference in the electrical sensing signals5.

As one of the core components in soft pressure sensors, stretchable electrodes capable of sustaining high stress and strain levels are crucial for the device to preserve stable conductive pathways and impedance characteristics6,7. Soft electrodes with excellent performance usually possess 1) high spatial resolution at the micrometer scale and 2) high stretchability with strong bonding to the substrate, and these are indispensable characteristics to enable highly integrated soft electronics in a wearable size8. Therefore, various strategies have been proposed recently to develop soft electrodes with the above properties, such as ink-jet printing, screen printing, spray printing, and transfer printing, etc.9. The ink-jet printing method6 has been widely used due to its advantages of simple fabrication, no masking requirement, and a low amount of material waste, but it is hard to achieve high-resolution patterning due to limitations in terms of the ink viscosity. Screen printing10 and spray printing11 are simple and cost-effective patterning methods that require a shadow mask on the substrate. However, the operation of placing or removing the mask can reduce the clarity of the patterning. Although transfer printing4 has been reported to be a promising way to achieve high-resolution printing, this method suffers from a complicated procedure and a time-consuming printing process. Furthermore, most of the soft electrodes produced by these patterning methods have other disadvantages, such as delamination from the substrate.

Herein, we present a novel printing method for the rapid fabrication of cost-effective and high-resolution soft electrodes based on microfluidic channel configurations. Compared to other conventional fabrication methods, the proposed strategy utilizes elastic conductive polymer composites (ECPCs) as the conductive material and lithographically embossed microfluidic channels to pattern the electrode traces. The ECPCs slurry is prepared by the solvent evaporation method and consists of 7 wt.% carbon nanotubes (CNTs) well-dispersed in a polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) matrix. By scraping the ECPCs slurry into the microfluidic channel, high-resolution electrodes defined by lithographic patterning can be produced. In addition, since the electrode is mainly based on PDMS, strong bonding is created at the interface between the ECPCs-based electrode and the PDMS substrate. Thus, the electrode can sustain a stretch level as high as the PDMS substrate. The experimental results confirm that the proposed stretchable electrode can respond linearly to axial strains up to 30% and exhibit excellent stability in a high-pressure range of 0-400 kPa, indicating the great potential of this method for fabricating soft electrodes in capacitive pressure sensors, which is also demonstrated in this work.

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1. Synthesis of the ECPCs slurry

  1. Disperse the CNTs into a toluene solvent at a weight ratio of 1:30 and dilute the PDMS base with toluene at a weight ratio of 1:1.
    NOTE: The whole experimental procedure, which is shown in Figure 1, should be carried out in a well-ventilated fume hood.
  2. Magnetically stir the CNTs/toluene suspension and the PDMS/toluene solution at room temperature for 1 h.
    NOTE: This step allows the CNTs to be well-dispersed into the PDMS matrix in the following step.
  3. Mix the CNTs/toluene suspension and the PDMS/toluene solution to form a liquid CNTs/PDMS/toluene mixture, and magnetically stir this blend on a hotplate at 80 °C to evaporate the solvent (toluene).
    NOTE: The evaporation of the solvent increases the solution viscosity, which needs to be precisely controlled to facilitate the mixing process in the next step. The time required for complete solvent evaporation is 2 h.
  4. Add PDMS curing agent into the CNTs/PDMS/toluene mixture at a weight ratio of 10:1.
    NOTE: At this stage, the synthesis of the ECPCs slurry is complete.

2. Fabrication of the microfluidic channel-based stretchable electrodes

  1. Prepare the SU-8-based mold with different patterns of microfluidic channels using the conventional lithography technique on a Si wafer.
    NOTE: The lithography process of the mold follows the standard method suggested in the data sheet of the photoresist used; the thickness of molds is about 100 µm, while three different line widths of 50 µm, 100 µm, and 200 µm are used for all the trace structures.
  2. Perform a silanization process on the SU-8 mold by immersing the mold into the (3-aminopropyl) triethoxysilane solution.
    NOTE: This step facilitates peeling off the PDMS.
  3. Mix the PDMS base solution and the curing agent with a weight ratio of 10:1, and place the uncured PDMS mixture in a vacuum desiccator until all the air bubbles disappear.
  4. Pour the degassed mixture onto the mold fabricated in step 2.1, and place the mold with the uncured PDMS solution on a hotplate at 85 °C for 1 h to completely cure the PDMS and transfer the pattern of the mold onto the cured PDMS film. Peel off the PDMS layer with the help of a blade.
  5. Cast a small amount of the ECPCs prepared in step 1 onto the PDMS surface. Carefully scrape the ECPCs slurry along the embossed microfluidic channel with the help of a razor blade.
    NOTE: During this scrape-coating process, the highly viscous ECPCs slurry is effectively trapped in the microchannel pattern, and residues left on the PDMS surface can be removed by the blade simultaneously. If it is hard to scrape the ECPCs slurry into the microchannel, it is recommended to heat the sample to increase its viscosity. This coating step may be repeated multiple times until the microchannel is filled and continuous conducting electrodes are formed.
  6. Heat the sample at 70 °C for 2 h.
  7. Connect copper wires to the two ends of the electrodes fabricated in the last step using conductive silver paste. The connection spot is further sealed and protected by the adhesive rubber sealant.
    ​NOTE: At this stage, the fabrication of the ECPCs-based stretchable electrodes is complete, as shown in Figure 2.

3. Fabrication of the capacitive pressure sensor

  1. Fabricate the soft electrode with an interdigitated fringe effect design using the proposed method (steps 2.1-2.7).
    NOTE: The interelectrode gap and line width of the interdigitated fringe effect design are set to be the same, and two configurations are fabricated: 200 µm and 300 µm. Before the heating procedure (step 2.6), which may cure the electrode, it is recommended to clean the electrode surface with adhesive tape to avoid a potential short-circuit between the two electrode traces in the interdigitated structure, since the scotch tape can selectively stick to the excessive uncured ECPCs slurry remaining on the PDMS surface, and the ECPCs filled in the microchannel can be retained.
  2. Prepare a 3D-printed mold.
    NOTE: The mold is designed to have a cavity (3 cm wide, 4 cm long, and with a height of 10 mm) with an opening into which the liquid silicone can be poured.
  3. Mix the two components of the platinum silicone flexible foam thoroughly with weight ratios for Part A:Part B of 1:1 and 6:1 to prepare dielectric layers of soft silicone foams with two pore sizes. Stir quickly.
    NOTE: The porosity can be controlled by adjusting the mixing ratio of Part A and Part B.
  4. Pour the mixture from the last step into the mold made in step 3.2.
  5. Use a board with several holes to cover the mold opening.
  6. Cure the mixture at room temperature for 1 h.
    NOTE: Since the silicone foam expands to two to three times its original volume after curing, the foam will grow out of the holes, meaning that the thickness of the foam in the cavity will be equal to the height of the mold cavity.
  7. Cut the excess silicone foam that comes through holes and remove the board.
  8. Place the prepared dielectric foam on top of the interdigitated soft electrode layer to finalize the pressure sensor fabrication.
    ​NOTE: The thickness of the cured silicone foam is 10 mm.

4. Strain characterization for the electrode

  1. Clamp the electrode fabricated in step 2 between the moving stages of a modified stepper motor.
  2. Apply uniaxial strain to the electrode by controlling the moving stage to stretch the electrode.
    NOTE: The applied stretchability can be calculated from the displacement of the moving stage.
  3. Use a multimeter to record the resistance measurement.

5. Pressure characterization for the electrode

  1. Fabricate a zig-zag electrode with an equivalent design to the interdigitated electrode (steps 2.1-2.7).
    NOTE: Considering that the comb electrodes of the interdigitated electrode have multiple fingers, the zig-zag electrode is designed to assemble the fingers in a single conducting pathway to evaluate the electrical properties of the interdigitated electrode. The tested electrode includes six fingers with a width of 300 µm, and the spacing between the fingers is 2 mm.
  2. Assemble the pressure loading platform by connecting a 3D-printed loading rod (2.5 cm in diameter), a standard pressure sensor, and the moving stage of a stepper motor.
  3. Place the fabricated electrode beneath the 3D-printed loading rod.
  4. Apply pressure to the electrode by controlling the moving stage to drive the loading rod moving vertically toward the electrode by a programmed distance.
    NOTE: The pressure can be controlled by setting the displacement of the moving stage, and the standard pressure is calculated by the force measurement from the standard force sensor.
  5. Use a multimeter to record the resistance measurement.

6. Pressure characterization for the capacitive pressure sensor

  1. Use the same platform as in step 5 to apply pressure to the capacitive pressure sensor fabricated in step 3.
  2. Use an LCR meter to record the capacitance measurement.
    NOTE: The capacitance is measured at a testing frequency of 1 kHz.

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Representative Results

Following the protocol, ECPCs can be patterned via the microfluidic channel, which leads to the formation of stretchable electrodes with a high resolution. Figures 3A, B shows photographs of soft electrodes with different trace designs and printing resolutions. Figure 3C shows the different line widths of the fabricated electrodes, including 50 µm, 100 µm, and 200 µm. The resistance of each electrode is presented in Figure 3D, which shows that the resistance increased with decreasing line widths, as expected based on Ohm's law. The serpentine electrodes also showed a higher resistance than the electrodes of the same width with a line structure due to the longer effective length of the serpentine electrodes. The stretchability of the soft electrodes is also demonstrated in Figure 3E, which shows that the strong interfaces between the ECPCs and microchannel wall enabled the electrode to exhibit great stretchability similar to the PDMS substrate. It was also noted that the resistance of both the line and serpentine electrodes increased linearly with the tensile strain in the longitudinal direction within the test range of 0%-30%. The results indicate that the change in the resistance can be purely attributed to the geometric effect. Due to the strain-releasing effect, the sensitivity of the serpentine electrode (Sp) was lower than that of the line structure electrode (Sl) for the same line width. Furthermore, a more complex design of the interdigitated electrodes (IDE) was successfully developed with a high spatial resolution based on the proposed fabrication method, as shown in Figure 4. A zig-zag electrode (ZZE) design with an equivalent structure was also fabricated to test the electrical stability of the IDE. The measured resistance showed a variation of 0.71% within the pressure range of 0-415 kPa since there was no structural damage in the electrode, which indicates that the IDE is suitable for pressure sensing.

As shown in Figure 5A, in this study, a soft pressure sensor was developed by combining a dielectric silicone foam and the IDE layer. When external pressure was applied to the foam, the dielectric constant increased due to the reduction in the air volume fraction (Figure 5B), which led to an increase in the sensor capacitance. The influence of the IDE line widths and air volume fractions on the capacitive sensing performance was investigated, as shown in Figure 5C. It was found that the device with a 200 µm line width had a higher sensitivity due to the stronger fringe field effect. The foam with a higher Part A:Part B weight ratio of 6:1 also had higher sensitivity than the foam with a lower air fraction; this result can be explained by the fact that the foam with a weight ratio of 1:1 had much more air, so the impact of deformation on the dielectric constant was lower, which led to a lower sensitivity12. In addition, the repeatability of the sensor is demonstrated in Figure 5D; , Here the cyclic test revealed that the fabricated soft capacitive sensor maintained high repeatability through 1,000 cyclic pressure loadings. This is because the closed-cell foams have little viscoelastic behavior, so the foam does not exhibit a permanent deformation under cyclic loading.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Fabrication process of the ECPCs conductive slurry. (A) Preparation of the CNTs/toluene suspension. (B) Preparation of the PDMS/toluene solution. (C) Preparation of the CNTs/PDMS/toluene suspension. (D) Evaporation of the excess toluene solvent. (E) Preparation of the ECPCs slurry. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Fabrication process of the microfluidic channel-based soft electrodes. (A) Lithographically defined SU-8 mold. (B) Development of the SU-8 mold pattern. (C) PDMS patterning. (D) Scrape-coating of ECPCs slurry. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Fabrication and resistance of the stretchable electrodes. Photographs of electrodes in the form of (A) a strip and (scale bar, 5 mm) (B) a serpentine design with different patterning resolutions (scale bar, 5 mm). (C) Optical microscope image of the fabricated electrodes with line widths of 50 µm, 100 µm, and 200 µm, respectively. (D)The resistance of the different electrodes with various line widths. (E) The changes in the resistances of the different electrodes under a tensile strain of up to 30%. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Stability of the resistance of the tested electrode. The resistance of the soft electrode with an IDE-equivalent design remained unchanged in a normal compressive pressure range of 0-400 kPa. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Characterization of the proposed soft pressure sensor. (A) Photograph of the proposed soft capacitive pressure sensor based on IDE and silicone dielectric foam (scale bar, 5 mm). (B) Working principle of the proposed pressure sensor. (C) The changes in the capacitance of the pressure sensors with different IDE line widths and dielectric foam porosities. (D) Cyclic test of the pressure sensor for 1,000 cycles. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

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In this protocol, we have demonstrated a novel microfluidic channel-based printing method for stretchable electrodes. The conductive material of the electrode, the ECPCs slurry, can be prepared by the solvent evaporation method, which allows the CNTs to be well-dispersed into the PDMS matrix, thus forming a conductive polymer that exhibits a stretchability as high as the PDMS substrate.

In the scraping process, the ECPCs slurry is rapidly filled into the PDMS microfluidic channel with the help of a razor blade. Hence, the viscosity of the slurry plays a crucial role in the scraping operation. A lower viscosity of the ECPCs slurry would result in partially filled microchannels, which may cause an open-circuit state or significantly higher resistance. On the other hand, higher viscosity could lead to excessive slurry remaining on the PDMS surface, inducing a short-circuit in high-resolution IDE structures. It should also be noted that although the conductive CNTs only represent a small fraction of 7 wt.% in the ECPCs slurry, the megaohm-level high resistance of the electrode has a negligible impact on the sensing performance in soft capacitive pressure sensors.

The proposed method is not suitable for fabricating highly conductive electrodes. Therefore, an enhanced electrical network of CNT-doped PDMS needs to be further investigated to maintain the conductivity of the electrodes when stretched.

Compared with electrodes produced by the existing fabrication methods, such as inkjet printing6, screen printing10, spray printing11, and transfer printing4, the proposed microfluidic channel-based soft electrodes have the advantages of high printing resolution and high stretchability with strong bonding to the substrate.

The protocol presented in this research combines the merits of the stretchable materials and microfluidic channels, enabling a low-cost and rapid fabrication method for producing high-resolution stretchable electrodes for soft robotic tactile sensing applications.

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The authors have nothing to disclose.


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China under Grant 62273304.


Name Company Catalog Number Comments
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) Nanjing Xianfeng Nano-technology Diameter:10-20 nm,Length:10-30 μm
Hotplate stirrer Thermo Scientific Super-Nuova+ Stirring and Heating Equipment
LCR meter Keysight E4980AL Capacitance Measurment Equipment
Microscope SDPTOP
Multimeter Fluke Resistance measurment Equipment
Oven Yamoto DX412C Heating equipment
Photo mask Shenzhen Weina Electronic Technology
Photoresist Microchem SU-8 3050
Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) Dow Corning Sylgard 184 Silicone Elastomer
Silicone foam Smooth on Soma Foama 25 Two-component Platinum Silicone Flexible Foam
Silicone wafer Suzhou Crystal Silicon Electronic & Technology Diameter:2 inches
Stirrer IKA Color Squid Stirring Equipment
Toluene Sinopharm Chemical Reagent Solvent for the Preparation of ECPCs
Triethoxysilane Macklin



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Microfluidic Channel-Based Soft Electrodes and Their Application in Capacitive Pressure Sensing
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Cite this Article

Wang, X., Shangguan, P., Huang, P.,More

Wang, X., Shangguan, P., Huang, P., Hou, D. Microfluidic Channel-Based Soft Electrodes and Their Application in Capacitive Pressure Sensing. J. Vis. Exp. (193), e65175, doi:10.3791/65175 (2023).

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