Published: 23rd April 2020
Researchers develop electronic skin that can monitor your health
Gao says the plan is to develop a variety of sensors that can be embedded in the e-skin so it can be used for multiple purposes
Researchers have developed an electronic skin or e-skin that is applied directly on top of your real skin. The e-skin, made from soft, flexible rubber, can be embedded with sensors that monitor information like heart rate, body temperature, levels of blood sugar and metabolic by-products that are indicators of health, and even the nerve signals that control our muscles. It does so without the need for a battery and runs solely on biofuel cells powered by one of the body's own waste products.
Caltech's Wei Gao, assistant professor at the Andrew and Peggy Cherng from the Department of Medical Engineering worked on the research, which has been published in the journal of Science Robotics.
"One of the major challenges with these kinds of wearable devices is on the power side," says Gao. "Many people are using batteries, but that's not very sustainable. Some people have tried using solar cells or harvesting the power of human motion, but we wanted to know -- Can we get sufficient energy from sweat to power the wearables? The answer is yes."
Gao explains that human sweat contains very high levels of chemical lactate, a compound generated as a by-product of normal metabolic processes, especially by muscles during exercise. The fuel cells built into the e-skin absorb that lactate and combine it with oxygen from the atmosphere, generating water and pyruvate, another by-product of metabolism.
As they operate, the biofuel cells generate enough electricity to power sensors and a Bluetooth device similar to the one that connects your phone to your car stereo, allowing the e-skin to transmit readings from its sensors wirelessly.
"While near-field communication is a common approach for many battery-free e-skin systems, it could be only used for power transfer and data readout over a very short distance," Gao says. "Bluetooth communication consumes higher power but is a more attractive approach with extended connectivity for practical medical and robotic applications."
Devising a power source that could run on sweat was not the only challenge in creating the e-skin, Gao says: "It also needed to last a long time with high power intensity with minimal degradation. The biofuel cells are made from carbon nanotubes impregnated with a platinum/cobalt catalyst and composite mesh holding an enzyme that breaks down lactate."
Gao says the plan is to develop a variety of sensors that can be embedded in the e-skin so it can be used for multiple purposes.
"We want this system to be a platform," he says. "In addition to being a wearable biosensor, this can be a human-machine interface. The vital signs and molecular information collected using this platform could be used to design and optimise next-generation prosthetics."