He may have had a laser in his watch and a radio in his lighter, but even James Bond didn’t sport gadgets tattooed to his skin. Now he could, thanks to the development of ultrathin electronics that can be placed on the skin as easily as a temporary tattoo.
Someday soon, hospital patients won’t be hooked up to wires and monitors – instead, electronic patches will be temporarily tattooed onto their bodies. Doctors will be able to monitor their vital signs without poking and prodding.
A new electronic skin patch, no more invasive than a temporary tattoo, marks a major breakthrough in human-machine interfaces. Tiny semiconductor circuits that stretch with the skin could be rubbed onto a person’s skin to monitor muscle activity, heart activity or even brain waves in real time without using bulky medical equipment.
The epidermal electronic circuit is initially mounted on a super-thin sheet of soluble plastic and laminated onto the skin with water, just like a temporary tattoo. Once it’s on, it can bend, wrinkle and stretch along with a wearer’s skin – it doesn’t pop off or snap, which is no small feat considering this is a high-performance semiconductor. When it’s no longer needed, it peels off like a layer of sunburned skin.
The devices adhere to the skin not with glue or static electricity, but with close-contact atomic forces called van der Waals interactions, which are essentially invisible to the user. Adhesion lasts up to 24 hours.
Researchers at the University of Illinois who came up with this device made circuits with a wide array of components to prove it could work: sensors, LEDs, transistors, radio frequency capacitors and wireless antennas, according to UI. The devices can draw power from induction or even from mini solar cells.
Studying brain function in a normal environment is impossible now – to use an EEG, a patient would have to be in a lab setting or wear some type of complicated helmet – but the patch could make it possible.
“The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable,” said UI Professor Todd Coleman, who co-led the research team.
Source: Jon Cartwright, ScienceMag.org