A “smart” tattoo? Researchers develop light-emitting tattoo for the first time

Experts have developed a “smart” tattoo using light-emitting technology. The tattoo is a brainchild from researchers at UCL and the Italian Institute of Technology—and is already being considered for a range of potential uses.

The smart tattoos can be applied the same way as water transfer tattoos. (Think of the snack wrappers you used to make “tattoos” back then. Bazooka Joe, anyone?) The technology uses organic light-emitting diodes set onto temporary tattoo paper. The tattoo can be transferred to a new surface by pressing onto it and dabbing it with water.

The team behind the project says that the technology can be used with existing tattoo electronics for a wide range of applications. For instance, it can be used to develop a tattoo that lights up when an athlete is dehydrated or when a person needs to get out of the sun to avoid dehydration. The smart tattoos can even be used to help label products and even in fashion.

Given its wide potential uses, the smart tattoo is easy to make and relatively inexpensive. In a statement, senior author Franco Cacialli described how the technology can significantly benefit healthcare.

“They could emit light when there is a change in a patient’s condition – or, if the tattoo was turned the other way into the skin, they could potentially be combined with light-sensitive therapies to target cancer cells, for instance,” he said.

The researchers are also hopeful that their proof-of-concept study can lead to better tattoos. In particular, those that won’t degrade quickly after exposure to air and those that can integrate with batteries or supercapacitors. (Read: Latest tech lets electronics be drawn on your own skin)

Smart tattoo lights up on surfaces

The smart tattoo developed by the team is surprisingly intricate. The OLED device used in the device is just 2.3 micrometers thick—that’s just a third of the size of a red blood cell. The tattoo lights up thanks to an electroluminescent polymer in between electrodes that’s 76 nanometers thick. The team used a process called spin coating to produce an even layer of the polymer. An insulating layer sits between the electrodes and the tattoo paper. The team then tested the OLED device, which emitted green light, by placing it on a pane of glass, an orange and even in paper packaging.

The current device is the latest in the team’s work on tattoo electronics. The researchers previously developed electrodes in skin tattoos that can be used to perform diagnostic tests.

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Ralph Gurango

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