Japan-based researchers have developed a new generation of ultra-thin smart sensors.
Following the electronic tattoo developed by the University of Austin (Texas, USA), researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan have developed an ultra-light material which enables medical data to be gathered on an ongoing basis. The research team explains the details of the technology they have developed in a university paper published in Nature magazine on 25 July. There is already a wide array of smart medical sensors on the market. These are however on the whole made of silicon, a thick, rigid material, which means that prolonged usage can be rather uncomfortable. The new electronic patch, by contrast, consists of organic sensors and transistors placed on a circuit just a few micrometers thick and weighing scarcely three grams per square metre, which makes it the lightest smart sensor ever created. This technology is therefore set to enable inter alia the development of unobtrusive sensors.
More refined medical sensors
This new patch, which can be stuck on to the skin, is not only light; it also reverts to its original shape after being folded, crumpled or stretched and is moreover water-resistant. This means it could be implanted inside the body or used in the mouth. The material does not cause any discomfort to the wearer and allows full freedom of movement. It is therefore, explain the researchers, suitable for a variety of monitoring applications including both medical and sports-related use, One could thus for example envisage using it for anti-doping controls throughout a sports event. The electronic components could however be adjusted to serve a double function: not only detection but also response. In the longer term, the electronic patch could be implanted inside the body in a form adapted to react to a physiological event; it might for example, be programmed to send an electric stimulus if an alert were received that the wearer was suffering a heart attack.
Next up: connectivity issues and robotics applications
This new material could also be used in perceptual computing, a fast-growing sector which combines tactile technology with gesture, face and voice recognition capabilities. The electronic sensors could even be used to compensate for a physical handicap, for instance to control systems using the mouth or eyes. In the same vein these sensors – made of a material which is more resistant than skin but has the same degree of sensitivity – could provide robots with a more delicate sense of touch. There are still nevertheless two sizeable challenges to meet if the new material is to be used effectively in all these fields: the electronic circuits need a suitable power source; and of course they have to be able to transfer wirelessly the data that is being constantly gathered.