An "electronic tattoo" could revolutionize medical sensing, computer gaming and even render the super slick James Bond movie gadgets antiquated.
Researchers have developed a super-thin "skin-patch" that mounts onto the skin like a temporary tattoo and has an array of electronic components that allows researchers to track key vital signs from patients. The patches are already able to monitor the heart, various other muscles and brain activity.
The micro-electronics technology, called an epidermal electronic system (EES), was developed by an international team of researchers from the United States, China and Singapore, and is described in the journal Science, reports the Associated Press.
"It's a technology that blurs the distinction between electronics and biology," said co-author John Rogers, a professor in materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Our goal was to develop an electronic technology that could integrate with the skin in a way that is mechanically and physiologically invisible to the user."
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Researchers hope that this wireless electronic monitoring device could replace bulky equipment currently used in hospitals. A mass of cables, wires, gel-coated sticky pads and monitors are currently needed to keep track of a patient's vital signs. Scientists believe that this could be "distressing", especially when a patient with heart problems has to wear a bulky monitor for a month "in order to capture abnormal but rare cardiac events".
The wireless device is small and nearly weightless. It is less than 50 micrometres thick - less than the diameter of a human hair. There are also tiny solar cells which can generate power or get energy from electromagnetic radiation.
The device doesn't use any adhesive to adhere to the skin. The sensor is mounted on to a water-soluble sheet of plastic, so is attached to the body by brushing with water, just like a temporary tattoo. It relies on a weak force called the van der Waals force, which causes molecules and surfaces to stick together without interfering with motion. This is the same force with which geckos stick to walls.
Researchers are optimistic that this technology could replace conventional cables and wires.
When this tattoo-like device was attached to the throat it allowed users to operate a voice-activated video game with better than 90 percent accuracy.
"This type of device might provide utility for those who suffer from certain diseases of the larynx. It could also form the basis of a sub-vocal communication capability, suitable for covert or other uses," said Rogers.
The device could be used for monitoring premature babies or for studying patients with sleep apnea without them wearing wires through the night. It could also be used for making electronic bandages to help skin heal from wounds and burns.
One of the disadvantages is that since the skin constantly produces new cells, the surface cells die and are brushed off, meaning a new sensor would need to be attached at least every fortnight.
Rogers, along with his research team, has worked on the technology for the past six years. They have already designed flexible electronics for hemispherical camera sensors and are now focused on adding battery power and other energy options.