Engineers at the University of Texas are developing a biosensor that’s cheap, disposable, high-tech—and modeled after the design of temporary tattoos.
The group hopes to replace traditional sensors like electrocardiograms (ECG), which monitor heart activity, and electroencephalograms (EEG), which monitor heart rate, with a thin credit-card sized patch that could be worn for up to a week. The patches are printed on temporary tattoo–like adhesives that can be applied comfortably to a patient's skin. The sensors themselves are carved from inexpensive, industrial-quality metal by a customizable cutter, which can be programmed to make patches of different sizes and shapes.
So far, the patches are still in prototype phase, but researchers believe they’ll not only offer a less expensive alternative to traditional biosensors but will be uniquely versatile. As Smithsonian explains, “The patches could measure skin hydration, respiration rate and eye activity, and eventually track blood pressure and oxygen saturation, for a range of patients, from pregnant women to athletes.”
But before the medical innovation can accomplish those things, researchers will have to overcome their biggest challenge of mass manufacturing: making the patch wireless. In an age where we increasingly take the wireless capability of our devices for granted, Bluetooth chip manufacturers still aren’t producing chips tiny enough for the biosensor patches. Fortunately, the researchers are working on an alternative option: a coin-sized wireless device that will attach to the patch.
“One of the most attractive aspects of epidermal electronics is their ability to be disposable,” researcher Nanshu Lu told UT News. “If you can make them inexpensively, say for $1, then more people will be able to use them more frequently. This will open the door for a number of mobile medical applications and beyond.”