Pretty soon, all it takes to collect health data is drawing sensors on your skin.
A team of researchers from the University of Houston has developed “drawn-on-skin electronics,” a new form of electronics that allows electronic circuits—including different types of body sensors—to be drawn directly to the skin.
In their new study, published in Nature Communications, the team also highlighted how the new technology allows for more accurate biological data collection, especially when a person is in motion. Currently, the new method allows scientists to draw fully functional systems for skin hydration, heart function and body temperature.
“Electronic inks, including conductors, semiconductors, and dielectrics, are drawn on-demand in a freeform manner to develop devices, such as transistors, strain sensors, temperature sensors, heaters, skin hydration sensors, and electrophysiological sensors,” the team wrote in their report.
A step closer to more accurate wearable tech
Drawn-on-skin electronics also solve the problem of getting precise biological data using wearable technology. This application of electronics to biology and medicine—aptly called bioelectronics—is used to monitor, prevent and even treat illness and injury by monitoring the wearer’s physical function.
Biomedical devices are indeed useful, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not prone to errors. For one, movement—both voluntary and involuntary (like breathing)—can affect the precision of data collection in the devices.
This imprecision, referred to as motion artifact, is something that medical experts have been trying to address. You might not mind it if motion artifact causes your smartwatch to say you’re at 4,000 steps instead of 4,200, but for medical devices, these need to be accurate, especially for diagnosis and treatment.
Enter drawn-on-skin electronics. Since they’re drawn directly on the skin, this allows them to conform to motion, effectively reducing motion artifact. The researchers added that the technology, once developed, can potentially replace dedicated (and often bulky) biomedical equipment.
“It is applied like you would use a pen to write on a piece of paper,” explained senior author Cunjiang Yu, an engineering professor at the University of Houston. “We prepare several electronic materials and then use pens to dispense them. Coming out, it is liquid. But like ink on paper, it dries very quickly.”
Given their portability and ease of use, the research team offered a few real-world applications where drawn-on-skin electronics could be useful. For one, it can be used in areas where people don’t have access to sophisticated medical equipment, most of which are bulky and expensive. The team also noted that it can be used on a battlefield, especially in emergency response.
Beyond their ability to track heart rate, muscle signals, temperature and skin hydration, the researchers also found that they can be used to speed up the healing of wounds. In experiments, the team demonstrated how running electricity through the inks can improve the healing of skin wounds.