Berkeley Lab

Soft Electronics for the Human Body

John Rogers, a Professor at Northwestern University, closed out the Plenary session with a talk on engineering soft electronic materials for medical purposes.

His research group has been working on developing materials for electronic devices that are not only bendable, but also stretchable, so that they can adhere and contour to the unpredictable surface of human skin. Their stretchy material resembles tessellations with repeating patterns of horseshoe-like shapes, and when integrated with electronic materials, yields ultrathin, flexible devices that can tolerate the stress of movement in multiple directions without damaging the electronics.

In the medical field, these new devices could unlock new methods of diagnostic monitoring for electrocardiography, hydration, and flow monitoring. One example he showed, is recent work developing a flow sensor that uses thermal actuators arranged in a specific pattern to measure the flow of blood or cerebrospinal fluid.

In the first of two examples, he showed how his group developed first a smart “bandaid” for use in NICUs treating premature babies. These babies’ skin is 40% more fragile than adult skin, and is easily damaged by the adhesives used to attach monitoring wires and equipment. Using the smart bandaid, they can eliminate this problem and have the added benefit of allowing parents to hold their children more easily during their time in the hospital.

In the second example, Professor Rogers showed how doctors came to him to ask if his blood flow sensors could be adapted to measure the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in shunts used to treat hydroencephaly – a new sensor is currently in development that could help doctors diagnose potential issues with deployed shunts.

Even with all the material and sensor development that has already occurred, Professor Rogers commented that power is still a huge issue. They either need new ultrathin materials that can store energy safely, or new materials for the low-power wireless transmission of data to improve the devices from where they are now and expand their potential applications.