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Making Stretchable Medical Electronics Practical

The latest stretchable electronics need to make a faster transition to patients, and this new work could help.
April 3, 2014

Stretchable electronics have been in development for years. For example, prototype skin patches with coiled wiring and flexible sensors are fast advancing to do things like sense heartbeats, muscle tremors, and other physiological signals (see “Making Stretchable Electronics,” “Electronic Sensors Printed Directly on the Skin,” and “A Bandage That Senses Tremors, Delivers Drugs, and Keeps a Record”). 

But these systems still face a challenge: you need to get the data from the patch. For continuous monitoring, this means batteries and radio transmitters.

New work suggests one solution: put conventional rigid battery and wireless transmitting technology in a fluid-filled plastic case that also includes flexible wiring and sensing elements. This approach—allowing the electronics to essentially float in a “highly visco-elastic polymer”—will make the device bigger. But for applications like fetal monitoring, it would be a whole lot more discreet and comforable than the boxy strapped-on devices that are now the norm.

A new paper, out today in Science, points out the details of how this could be done. “The outcome is a thin, conformable device technology that can softly laminate onto the surface of the skin to enable advanced, multifunctional operation for physiological monitoring in a wireless mode,” the authors write. The work, led by John Rogers, a materials scentist at the University of Illinois who is a leader in this area, might allow stretchable electronics to make a faster transition from lab to clinic.

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