Category Archives: wearable electronics

Future firefighters and wearable technology

I imagine this wearable technology would also be useful for the military too. However, the focus for these researchers from China is firefighting. (Given the situation with the Canadian wildfires in June 2023, we have 10x more than the average at this time in the season over the last 10 years, it’s good to see some work focused on safety for firefighters.) From a January 17, 2023 news item on,

Firefighting may look vastly different in the future thanks to intelligent fire suits and masks developed by multiple research institutions in China.

Researchers published results showing breathable electrodes woven into fabric used in fire suits have proven to be stable at temperatures over 520ºC. At these temperatures, the fabric is found to be essentially non-combustible with high rates of thermal protection time.

Caption: Scientists from multiple institutions address the challenges and limitations of current fire-fighting gear by introducing wearable, breathable sensors and electrodes to better serve firefighters. Credit: Nano Research, Tsinghua University Press

A January 17, 2023 Tsinghua University Press press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more technical details,

The results show the efficacy and practicality of Janus graphene/poly(p-phenylene benzobisoxazole), or PBO, woven fabric in making firefighting “smarter” with the main goal being to manufacture products on an industrial scale that are flame-retardant but also intelligent enough to warn the firefighter of increased risks while traversing the flames.

“Conventional firefighting clothing and fire masks can ensure firemen’s safety to a certain extent,” said Wei Fan, professor at the School of Textile Science and Engineering at Xi’an Polytechnic University. “However, the fire scene often changes quickly, sometimes making firefighters trapped in the fire for failing to judge the risks in time. At this situation, firefighters also need to be rescued.”

The key here is the use of Janus graphene/PBO, woven fabrics. While not the first of its kind, the introduction of PBO fibers offers better strength and fire protection than other similar fibers, such as Kevlar. The PBO fibers are first woven into a fabric that is then irradiated using a CO2 infrared laser. From here, the fabric becomes the Janus graphene/PBO hybrid that is the focus of the study.   

The mask also utilizes a top and bottom layer of Janus graphene/PBO with a piezoelectric layer in between that acts as a way to convert mechanical pressures to electricity.

“The mask has a good smoke particle filtration effect, and the filtration efficiency of PM2.5 and PM3.0 reaches 95% and 100%, respectively. Meanwhile, the mask has good wearing comfort as its respiratory resistance (46.8 Pa) is lower than 49 Pa of commercial masks. Besides, the mask is sensitive to the speed and intensity of human breathing, which can dynamically monitor the health of the firemen” said Fan.

Flame-retardant electronics featured in these fire suits are flexible, heat resistant, quick to make and low-cost which makes scaling for industrial production a tangible achievement. This makes it more likely that the future of firefighting suits and masks will be able to effectively use this technology. Quick, effective responses can also reduce economic losses attributed to fires.

“The graphene/PBO woven fabrics-based sensors exhibit good repeatability and stability in human motion monitoring and NO2 gas detection, the main toxic gas in fires, which can be applied to firefighting suits to help firefighters effectively avoiding danger” Fan said. Being able to detect sharp increases in NO2 gas can help firefighters change course in an instant if needed and could be a lifesaving addition to firefighter gear.

Major improvements can be made in the firefighting field to better protect the firefighters by taking advantage of graphene/PBO woven and nonwoven fabrics. Widescale use of this technology can help the researchers reach their ultimate goal of reducing mortality and injury to those who risk their lives fighting fires.

Yu Luo and Yaping Miao of the School of Textile Science and Engineering at Xi’an Polytechnic University contributed equally to this work. Professor Wei Fan is the corresponding author. Yingying Zhang and Huimin Wang of the Department of Chemistry at Tsinghua University, Kai Dong of the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Lin Hou and Yanyan Xu of Shaanxi Textile Research Institute Co., LTD, Weichun Chen and Yao Zhang of the School of Textile Science and Engineering at Xi’an Polytechnic University contributed to this research. 

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Textile Vision Basic Research Program of China, Key Research and Development Program of Xianyang Science and Technology Bureau, Key Research and Development Program of Shaanxi Province, Natural Science Foundation of Shaanxi Province, and Scientific Research Project of Shaanxi Provincial Education Department.

Here are two links and a citation for the same paper,

Laser-induced Janus graphene/poly(p-phenylene benzobisoxazole) fabrics with intrinsic flame retardancy as flexible sensors and breathable electrodes for fire-fighting field by Yu Luo, Yaping Miao, Huimin Wang, Kai Dong, Lin Hou, Yanyan Xu, Weichun Chen, Yao Zhang, Yingying Zhang & Wei Fan. Nano Research (2023) DOI: Published12 January 2023

This link leads to a paywall.

Here’s the second link (to SciOpen)

Laser-induced Janus graphene/poly(p-phenylene benzobisoxazole) fabrics with intrinsic flame retardancy as flexible sensors and breathable electrodes for fire-fighting field. SciOpen Published January 12, 2023

This link leads to an open access journal published by Tsinghua University Press.

Embroidery as a low-cost solution for making wearable electronics?

A November 22, 2022 news item on Nanowerk explores embroidery as a means for affixing wearable electronics to textiles,

Embroidering power-generating yarns onto fabric allowed researchers to embed a self-powered, numerical touch-pad and movement sensors into clothing. The technique offers a low-cost, scalable potential method for making wearable devices.

“Our technique uses embroidery, which is pretty simple – you can stitch our yarns directly on the fabric,” said the study’s lead author Rong Yin, assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at North Carolina State University. “During fabric production, you don’t need to consider anything about the wearable devices. You can integrate the power-generating yarns after the clothing item has been made.”

Caption: Yu Chen, graduate student at NC State, demonstrates embroidery techniques. Courtesy: North Caroline State University

A North Carolina State University November 22, 2022 news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

In the study published in Nano Energy, researchers tested multiple designs for power-generating yarns. To make them durable enough to withstand the tension and bending of the embroidery stitching process, they ultimately used five commercially available copper wires, which had a thin polyurethane coating, together. Then, they stitched them onto cotton fabric with another material called PTFE.

“This is a low-cost method for making wearable electronics using commercially available products,” Yin said. “The electrical properties of our prototypes were comparable to other designs that relied on the same power generation mechanism.”

The researchers relied on a method of generating electricity called the “triboelectric effect,” which involves harnessing electrons exchanged by two different materials, like static electricity. They found the PTFE fabric had the best performance in terms of voltage and current when in contact with the polyurethane-coated copper wires, as compared to other types of fabric that they tested, including cotton and silk. They also tested coating the embroidery samples in plasma to increase the effect.

In our design, you have two layers – one is your conductive, polyurethane-coated copper wires, and the other is PTFE, and they have a gap between them,” Yin said. “When the two non-conductive materials come into contact with each other, one material will lose some electrons, and some will get some electrons. When you link them together, there will be a current.”

Researchers tested their yarns as motion sensors by embroidering them with the PTFE fabric on denim. They placed the embroidery patches on the palm, under the arm, at the elbow and at the knee to track electrical signals generated as a person moves. They also attached fabric with their embroidery on the insole of a shoe to test its use as a pedometer, finding their electrical signals varied depending on whether the person was walking, running or jumping.

Lastly, they tested their yarns in a textile-based numeric keypad on the arm, which they made by embroidering numbers on a piece of cotton fabric, and attaching them to a piece of PTFE fabric. Depending on the number that the person pushed on the keypad, they saw different electrical signals generated for each number.

“You can embroider our yarns onto clothes, and when you move, it generates an electrical signal, and those signals can be used as a sensor,” Yin said. “When we put the embroidery in a shoe, if you are running, it generates a higher voltage than if you were just walking. When we stitched numbers onto fabric, and press them, it generates a different voltage for each number. It could be used as an interface.”

Since textile products will inevitably be washed, they tested the durability of their embroidery design in a series of washing and rubbing tests. After hand washing and rinsing the embroidery with detergent, and drying it in an oven, they found no difference or a slight increase in voltage. For the prototype coated in plasma, they found weakened but still superior performance compared with the original sample. After an abrasion test, they found that there was no significant change in electrical output performance of their designs after 10,000 rubbing cycles.

In future work, they plan to integrate their sensors with other devices to add more functions.

“The next step is to integrate these sensors into a wearable system,” Yin said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Flexible, durable, and washable triboelectric yarn and embroidery for self-powered sensing and human-machine interaction by Yu Chen, Erdong Chen, Zihao Wang, Yali Ling, Rosie Fisher, Mengjiao Li, Jacob Hart, Weilei Mu, Wei Gao, Xiaoming Tao, Bao Yang and Rong Yin. Nano Energy Volume 104, Part A, 15 December 2022, 107929 DOI: 10.1016/j.nanoen.2022.107929 Available online: 27 October 2022 Version of Record: 4 November 2022.

This paper is behind a paywall.

SkinKit: smart tattoo provides on-skin computing

The SkinKit wearable sensing interface, developed in the Hybrid Body Lab, can be used for health and wellness, personal safety, as assistive technology and for athletic training, among many applications. Hybrid Body Lab/Provided

A November 3, 2022 Cornell University news release on EurekAlert announces a computer you can attach to your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at Cornell University have come up with a reliable, skin-tight computing system that’s easy to attach and detach, and can be used for a variety of purposes – from health monitoring to fashion.

On-skin interfaces – sometimes known as “smart tattoos” – have the potential to outperform the sensing capabilities of current wearable technologies but combining comfort and durability has proven challenging.

“We’ve been working on this for years,” said Cindy (Hsin-Liu) Kao, assistant professor of human centered design, and the study’s senior author, “and I think we’ve finally figured out a lot of the technical challenges. We wanted to create a modular approach to smart tattoos, to make them as straightforward as building Legos.”

SkinKit – a plug-and-play system that aims to “lower the floor for entry” to on-skin interfaces for those with little or no technical expertise – is the product of countless hours of development, testing and redevelopment, Kao said. Fabrication is done with temporary tattoo paper, silicone textile stabilizer and water, creating a multi-layer thin film structure they call “skin cloth.” The layered material can be cut into desired shapes and fitted with electronics hardware to perform a range of tasks.

“The wearer can easily attach them together and also detach them,” said Pin-Sung Ku, lead author of the paper and Hybrid Body Lab member. “Let’s say that today you want to use one of the sensors for certain purposes, but tomorrow you want it for something different. You can easily just detach them and reuse some of the modules to make a new device in minutes.”

The paper “SkinKit: Construction Kit for On-Skin Interface Prototyping” was presented at UbiComp ’22, the Association for Computing Machinery’s international joint conference on pervasive and ubiquitous computing.

Here’s a SkinKit video provided by Cornell University’s Hybrid Body Lab,

Tom Fleischman’s November 3, 2022 story for the Cornell Chronicle provides more details about SkinKit (Note: Links have been removed),

SkinKit – a plug-and-play system that aims to “lower the floor for entry” to on-skin interfaces, Kao said, for those with little or no technical expertise – is the product of countless hours of development, testing and redevelopment, she said.

Kao’s lab is also very conscious of cultural differences generally, and she thinks it’s important to bring these devices to diverse populations.

“People from different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities can have very different perceptions toward these devices,” she said. “We felt it’s actually very important to let more people have a voice in saying what they want these smart tattoos to do.”

To test SkinKit, the researchers first recruited nine participants with both STEM and design backgrounds to build and wear the devices. Their input from the 90-minute workshop helped inform further modifications, which the group performed before conducting a larger, two-day study involving 25 participants with both STEM and design backgrounds.

Devices designed by the 25 study participants addressed: health and wellness, including temperature sensors to detect fever due to COVID-19; personal safety, including a device that would help the wearer maintain social distance during the pandemic; notification, including an arm-worn device that a runner could wear that would vibrate when a vehicle was near; and assistive technology, such as a wrist-worn sensor for the blind that would vibrate when the wearer was about to bump into an object.

Kao said members of her lab, including Ku, took part in the 4-H Career Explorations Conference over the summer, and had approximately 10 middle-schoolers from upstate New York build their own SkinKit devices.

“I think it just shows us a lot of potential for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] learning, and especially to be able to engage people who maybe originally wouldn’t have interest in STEM,” Kao said. “But by combining it with body art and fashion, I think there’s a lot of potential for it to engage the next generation and broader populations to explore the future of smart tattoos.”

Here’s a citation for the paper,

SkinKit: Construction Kit for On-Skin Interface Prototyping” by Pin-Sung Ku, Md. Tahmidul Islam Molla, Kunpeng Huang, Priya Kattappurath, Krithik Ranjan, Hsin-Liu Cindy Kao. Proceedings of the ACM [Aossciation for Computing Machinery] on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies Volume 5 Issue 4 Dec 2021 Article No.: 165pp 1–23 DOI: Published: 30 December 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Hybrid Body Lab can be found here (the pictures are fascinating). Here’s more from their About page,

The Hybrid Body Lab at Cornell University, founded and directed by Prof. Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, focuses on the invention of culturally-inspired materials, processes, and tools for crafting technology on the body surface. Designing across scales, we explore how body scale interfaces can enhance our relations with everyday products and both natural and man-made environments. We conduct research at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction, Wearable & Ubiquitous Computing, Digital Fabrication, Interaction Design, and Fashion & Body Art. We synthesize this knowledge to contribute a culturally-sensitive lens to the future of designs that interface the body and the environment. Our current investigations include:

Wearable Technology & On-Skin Interfaces
We develop novel wearable interfaces and fabrication processes, which a focus on skin-conformable or textile-based form factors. By hybridizing miniaturized robotics, machines, and materials with cultural body decoration practices, we investigate how technology can be situated as a culturally meaningful material for crafting our identities.

Designing Skins Across Scales
‘Many different types of machines that were parts of architecture have become parts of our bodies.’ —Bill Mitchell, Me++

We design “skins” that can be adapted across scales, from the architectural to the body scale. We investigate the interactions of a wearer’s body-borne interface with its surrounding ecology. This includes its interaction with other people, objects, to environments. We are also interested in developing skins that can be deployed across scales — from the body to the architectural scale.

Understanding Social Perceptions Towards On-Body Technologies
Wearable devices have evolved towards intrinsic human augmentation, unlocking the human skin as an interface for seamless interaction. However, the non-traditional form factor of these on-skin interfaces may raise concerns for public wear. These perceptions will influence whether a new form of technology will eventually be accepted, or rejected by society.  We investigate the cultural and social concerns that need to be considered when generating on-body technologies for inclusive design.

Bioinspired ‘smart’ materials a step towards soft robotics and electronics

An October 13, 2022 news item on Nanowerk describes some new work from the University of Texas at Austin,

Inspired by living things from trees to shellfish, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin set out to create a plastic much like many life forms that are hard and rigid in some places and soft and stretchy in others.

Their success — a first, using only light and a catalyst to change properties such as hardness and elasticity in molecules of the same type — has brought about a new material that is 10 times as tough as natural rubber and could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.

An October 13, 2022 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

“This is the first material of its type,” said Zachariah Page, assistant professor of chemistry and corresponding author on the paper. “The ability to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”

Scientists have long sought to mimic the properties of living structures, like skin and muscle, with synthetic materials. In living organisms, structures often combine attributes such as strength and flexibility with ease. When using a mix of different synthetic materials to mimic these attributes, materials often fail, coming apart and ripping at the junctures between different materials.

Oftentimes, when bringing materials together, particularly if they have very different mechanical properties, they want to come apart,” Page said. Page and his team were able to control and change the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to alter how firm or stretchy the material would be.

Chemists started with a monomer, a small molecule that binds with others like it to form the building blocks for larger structures called polymers that were similar to the polymer found in the most commonly used plastic. After testing a dozen catalysts, they found one that, when added to their monomer and shown visible light, resulted in a semicrystalline polymer similar to those found in existing synthetic rubber. A harder and more rigid material was formed in the areas the light touched, while the unlit areas retained their soft, stretchy properties.

Because the substance is made of one material with different properties, it was stronger and could be stretched farther than most mixed materials.

The reaction takes place at room temperature, the monomer and catalyst are commercially available, and researchers used inexpensive blue LEDs as the light source in the experiment. The reaction also takes less than an hour and minimizes use of any hazardous waste, which makes the process rapid, inexpensive, energy efficient and environmentally benign.

The researchers will next seek to develop more objects with the material to continue to test its usability.

“We are looking forward to exploring methods of applying this chemistry towards making 3D objects containing both hard and soft components,” said first author Adrian Rylski, a doctoral student at UT Austin.

The team envisions the material could be used as a flexible foundation to anchor electronic components in medical devices or wearable tech. In robotics, strong and flexible materials are desirable to improve movement and durability.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polymeric multimaterials by photochemical patterning of crystallinity by Adrian K. Rylski, Henry L. Cater, Keldy S. Mason, Marshall J. Allen, Anthony J. Arrowood, Benny D. Freeman, Gabriel E. Sanoja, and Zachariah A. Page. Science 13 Oct 2022 Vol 378, Issue 6616 pp. 211-215 DOI: 10.1126/science.add6975

This paper is behind a paywall.

Enhance or weaken memory with stretchy, bioinspired synaptic transistor

This news is intriguing since they usually want to enhance memory not weaken it. Interestingly, this October 3, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily doesn’t immediately answer why you might want to weaken memory,

Robotics and wearable devices might soon get a little smarter with the addition of a stretchy, wearable synaptic transistor developed by Penn State engineers. The device works like neurons in the brain to send signals to some cells and inhibit others in order to enhance and weaken the devices’ memories.

Led by Cunjiang Yu, Dorothy Quiggle Career Development Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics and associate professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering, the team designed the synaptic transistor to be integrated in robots or wearables and use artificial intelligence to optimize functions. The details were published on Sept. 29 [2022] in Nature Electronics.

“Mirroring the human brain, robots and wearable devices using the synaptic transistor can use its artificial neurons to ‘learn’ and adapt their behaviors,” Yu said. “For example, if we burn our hand on a stove, it hurts, and we know to avoid touching it next time. The same results will be possible for devices that use the synaptic transistor, as the artificial intelligence is able to ‘learn’ and adapt to its environment.”

A September 29, 2022 Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) news release (also on EurekAlert but published on October 3, 2022) by Mariah Chuprinski, which originated the news item, explains why you might want to weaken memory,

According to Yu, the artificial neurons in the device were designed to perform like neurons in the ventral tegmental area, a tiny segment of the human brain located in the uppermost part of the brain stem. Neurons process and transmit information by releasing neurotransmitters at their synapses, typically located at the neural cell ends. Excitatory neurotransmitters trigger the activity of other neurons and are associated with enhancing memories, while inhibitory neurotransmitters reduce the activity of other neurons and are associated with weakening memories.

“Unlike all other areas of the brain, neurons in the ventral tegmental area are capable of releasing both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters at the same time,” Yu said. “By designing the synaptic transistor to operate with both synaptic behaviors simultaneously, fewer transistors are needed [emphasis mine] compared to conventional integrated electronics technology, which simplifies the system architecture and allows the device to conserve energy.”

To model soft, stretchy biological tissues, the researchers used stretchable bilayer semiconductor materials to fabricate the device, allowing it to stretch and twist while in use, according to Yu. Conventional transistors, on the other hand, are rigid and will break when deformed.

“The transistor is mechanically deformable and functionally reconfigurable, yet still retains its functions when stretched extensively,” Yu said. “It can attach to a robot or wearable device to serve as their outermost skin.”

In addition to Yu, other contributors include Hyunseok Shim and Shubham Patel, Penn State Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics; Yongcao Zhang, the University of Houston Materials Science and Engineering Program; Faheem Ershad, Penn State Department of Biomedical Engineering and University of Houston Department of Biomedical Engineering; Binghao Wang, School of Electronic Science and Engineering, Southeast University [Note: There’s one in Bangladesh, one in China, and there’s a Southeastern University in Florida, US] and Department of Chemistry and the Materials Research Center, Northwestern University; Zhihua Chen, Flexterra Inc.; Tobin J. Marks, Department of Chemistry and the Materials Research Center, Northwestern University; Antonio Facchetti, Flexterra Inc. and Northwestern University’s Department of Chemistry and Materials Research Center.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

An elastic and reconfigurable synaptic transistor based on a stretchable bilayer semiconductor by Hyunseok Shim, Faheem Ershad, Shubham Patel, Yongcao Zhang, Binghao Wang, Zhihua Chen, Tobin J. Marks, Antonio Facchetti & Cunjiang Yu. Nature Electronics (2022) DOI: DOI: Published: 29 September 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Skin-like computing device analyzes health data with brain-mimicking artificial intelligence (a neuromorphic chip)

The wearable neuromorphic chip, made of stretchy semiconductors, can implement artificial intelligence (AI) to process massive amounts of health information in real time. Above, Asst. Prof. Sihong Wang shows a single neuromorphic device with three electrodes. (Photo by John Zich)

Does everything have to be ‘brainy’? Read on for the latest on ‘brainy’ devices.

An August 4, 2022 University of Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert) describes work on a stretchable neuromorphic chip, Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a brainy Band-Aid, a smart watch without the watch, and a leap forward for wearable health technologies. Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) have developed a flexible, stretchable computing chip that processes information by mimicking the human brain. The device, described in the journal Matter, aims to change the way health data is processed.

“With this work we’ve bridged wearable technology with artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a powerful device which can analyze health data right on our own bodies,” said Sihong Wang, a materials scientist and Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering.

Today, getting an in-depth profile about your health requires a visit to a hospital or clinic. In the future, Wang said, people’s health could be tracked continuously by wearable electronics that can detect disease even before symptoms appear. Unobtrusive, wearable computing devices are one step toward making this vision a reality. 

A Data Deluge
The future of healthcare that Wang—and many others—envision includes wearable biosensors to track complex indicators of health including levels of oxygen, sugar, metabolites and immune molecules in people’s blood. One of the keys to making these sensors feasible is their ability to conform to the skin. As such skin-like wearable biosensors emerge and begin collecting more and more information in real-time, the analysis becomes exponentially more complex. A single piece of data must be put into the broader perspective of a patient’s history and other health parameters.

Today’s smart phones are not capable of the kind of complex analysis required to learn a patient’s baseline health measurements and pick out important signals of disease. However, cutting-edge artificial intelligence platforms that integrate machine learning to identify patterns in extremely complex datasets can do a better job. But sending information from a device to a centralized AI location is not ideal.

“Sending health data wirelessly is slow and presents a number of privacy concerns,” he said. “It is also incredibly energy inefficient; the more data we start collecting, the more energy these transmissions will start using.”

Skin and Brains
Wang’s team set out to design a chip that could collect data from multiple biosensors and draw conclusions about a person’s health using cutting-edge machine learning approaches. Importantly, they wanted it to be wearable on the body and integrate seamlessly with skin.

“With a smart watch, there’s always a gap,” said Wang. “We wanted something that can achieve very intimate contact and accommodate the movement of skin.”

Wang and his colleagues turned to polymers, which can be used to build semiconductors and electrochemical transistors but also have the ability to stretch and bend. They assembled polymers into a device that allowed the artificial-intelligence-based analysis of health data. Rather than work like a typical computer, the chip— called a neuromorphic computing chip—functions more like a human brain, able to both store and analyze data in an integrated way.

Testing the Technology
To test the utility of their new device, Wang’s group used it to analyze electrocardiogram (ECG) data representing the electrical activity of the human heart. They trained the device to classify ECGs into five categories—healthy or four types of abnormal signals. Then, they tested it on new ECGs. Whether or not the chip was stretched or bent, they showed, it could accurately classify the heartbeats.

More work is needed to test the power of the device in deducing patterns of health and disease. But eventually, it could be used either to send patients or clinicians alerts, or to automatically tweak medications.

“If you can get real-time information on blood pressure, for instance, this device could very intelligently make decisions about when to adjust the patient’s blood pressure medication levels,” said Wang. That kind of automatic feedback loop is already used by some implantable insulin pumps, he added.

He already is planning new iterations of the device to both expand the type of devices with which it can integrate and the types of machine learning algorithms it uses.

“Integration of artificial intelligence with wearable electronics is becoming a very active landscape,” said Wang. “This is not finished research, it’s just a starting point.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Intrinsically stretchable neuromorphic devices for on-body processing of health data with artificial intelligence by Shilei Dai, Yahao Dai, Zixuan Zhao, Jie Xu, Jia Huang, Sihong Wang. Matter DOI: Published: August 04, 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Implantable living pharmacy

I stumbled across a very interesting US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project (from an August 30, 2021 posting on Northwestern University’s Rivnay Lab [a laboratory for organic bioelectronics] blog),

Our lab has received a cooperative agreement with DARPA to develop a wireless, fully implantable ‘living pharmacy’ device that could help regulate human sleep patterns. The project is through DARPA’s BTO (biotechnology office)’s Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) program, meant to address physical challenges of travel, such as jetlag and fatigue.

The device, called NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks), would control the body’s circadian clock, reducing the time it takes for a person to recover from disrupted sleep/wake cycles by as much as half the usual time.

The project spans 5 institutions including Northwestern, Rice University, Carnegie Mellon, University of Minnesota, and Blackrock Neurotech.

Prior to the Aug. 30, 2021 posting, Amanda Morris wrote a May 13, 2021 article for Northwestern NOW (university magazine), which provides more details about the project, Note: A link has been removed,

The first phase of the highly interdisciplinary program will focus on developing the implant. The second phase, contingent on the first, will validate the device. If that milestone is met, then researchers will test the device in human trials, as part of the third phase. The full funding corresponds to $33 million over four-and-a-half years. 

Nicknamed the “living pharmacy,” the device could be a powerful tool for military personnel, who frequently travel across multiple time zones, and shift workers including first responders, who vacillate between overnight and daytime shifts.

Combining synthetic biology with bioelectronics, the team will engineer cells to produce the same peptides that the body makes to regulate sleep cycles, precisely adjusting timing and dose with bioelectronic controls. When the engineered cells are exposed to light, they will generate precisely dosed peptide therapies. 

“This control system allows us to deliver a peptide of interest on demand, directly into the bloodstream,” said Northwestern’s Jonathan Rivnay, principal investigator of the project. “No need to carry drugs, no need to inject therapeutics and — depending on how long we can make the device last — no need to refill the device. It’s like an implantable pharmacy on a chip that never runs out.” 

Beyond controlling circadian rhythms, the researchers believe this technology could be modified to release other types of therapies with precise timing and dosing for potentially treating pain and disease. The DARPA program also will help researchers better understand sleep/wake cycles, in general.

“The experiments carried out in these studies will enable new insights into how internal circadian organization is maintained,” said Turek [Fred W. Turek], who co-leads the sleep team with Vitaterna [Martha Hotz Vitaterna]. “These insights will lead to new therapeutic approaches for sleep disorders as well as many other physiological and mental disorders, including those associated with aging where there is often a spontaneous breakdown in temporal organization.” 

For those who like to dig even deeper, Dieynaba Young’s June 17, 2021 article for Smithsonian Magazine ( link to article) provides greater context and greater satisfaction, Note: Links have been removed,

In 1926, Fritz Kahn completed Man as Industrial Palace, the preeminent lithograph in his five-volume publication The Life of Man. The illustration shows a human body bustling with tiny factory workers. They cheerily operate a brain filled with switchboards, circuits and manometers. Below their feet, an ingenious network of pipes, chutes and conveyer belts make up the blood circulatory system. The image epitomizes a central motif in Kahn’s oeuvre: the parallel between human physiology and manufacturing, or the human body as a marvel of engineering.

An apparatus in the embryonic stage of development at the time of this writing in June of 2021—the so-called “implantable living pharmacy”—could have easily originated in Kahn’s fervid imagination. The concept is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in conjunction with several universities, notably Northwestern and Rice. Researchers envision a miniaturized factory, tucked inside a microchip, that will manufacture pharmaceuticals from inside the body. The drugs will then be delivered to precise targets at the command of a mobile application. …

The implantable living pharmacy, which is still in the “proof of concept” stage of development, is actually envisioned as two separate devices—a microchip implant and an armband. The implant will contain a layer of living synthetic cells, along with a sensor that measures temperature, a short-range wireless transmitter and a photo detector. The cells are sourced from a human donor and reengineered to perform specific functions. They’ll be mass produced in the lab, and slathered onto a layer of tiny LED lights.

The microchip will be set with a unique identification number and encryption key, then implanted under the skin in an outpatient procedure. The chip will be controlled by a battery-powered hub attached to an armband. That hub will receive signals transmitted from a mobile app.

If a soldier wishes to reset their internal clock, they’ll simply grab their phone, log onto the app and enter their upcoming itinerary—say, a flight departing at 5:30 a.m. from Arlington, Virginia, and arriving 16 hours later at Fort Buckner in Okinawa, Japan. Using short-range wireless communications, the hub will receive the signal and activate the LED lights inside the chip. The lights will shine on the synthetic cells, stimulating them to generate two compounds that are naturally produced in the body. The compounds will be released directly into the bloodstream, heading towards targeted locations, such as a tiny, centrally-located structure in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that serves as master pacemaker of the circadian rhythm. Whatever the target location, the flow of biomolecules will alter the natural clock. When the solider arrives in Okinawa, their body will be perfectly in tune with local time.

The synthetic cells will be kept isolated from the host’s immune system by a membrane constructed of novel biomaterials, allowing only nutrients and oxygen in and only the compounds out. Should anything go wrong, they would swallow a pill that would kill the cells inside the chip only, leaving the rest of their body unaffected.

If you have the time, I recommend reading Young’s June 17, 2021 Smithsonian Magazine article ( link to article) in its entirety. Young goes on to discuss, hacking, malware, and ethical/societal issues and more.

There is an animation of Kahn’s original poster in a June 23, 2011 posting on (also found on Vimeo; Der Mensch als Industriepalast [Man as Industrial Palace])

Credits: Idea & Animation: Henning M. Lederer /; Sound-Design: David Indge; and original poster art: Fritz Kahn.

Synaptic transistors for brainlike computers based on (more environmentally friendly) graphene

An August 9, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily describes research investigating materials other than silicon for neuromorphic (brainlike) computing purposes,

Computers that think more like human brains are inching closer to mainstream adoption. But many unanswered questions remain. Among the most pressing, what types of materials can serve as the best building blocks to unlock the potential of this new style of computing.

For most traditional computing devices, silicon remains the gold standard. However, there is a movement to use more flexible, efficient and environmentally friendly materials for these brain-like devices.

In a new paper, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin developed synaptic transistors for brain-like computers using the thin, flexible material graphene. These transistors are similar to synapses in the brain, that connect neurons to each other.

An August 8, 2022 University of Texas at Austin news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 9, 2022), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

“Computers that think like brains can do so much more than today’s devices,” said Jean Anne Incorvia, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineer and the lead author on the paper published today in Nature Communications. “And by mimicking synapses, we can teach these devices to learn on the fly, without requiring huge training methods that take up so much power.”

The Research: A combination of graphene and nafion, a polymer membrane material, make up the backbone of the synaptic transistor. Together, these materials demonstrate key synaptic-like behaviors — most importantly, the ability for the pathways to strengthen over time as they are used more often, a type of neural muscle memory. In computing, this means that devices will be able to get better at tasks like recognizing and interpreting images over time and do it faster.

Another important finding is that these transistors are biocompatible, which means they can interact with living cells and tissue. That is key for potential applications in medical devices that come into contact with the human body. Most materials used for these early brain-like devices are toxic, so they would not be able to contact living cells in any way.

Why It Matters: With new high-tech concepts like self-driving cars, drones and robots, we are reaching the limits of what silicon chips can efficiently do in terms of data processing and storage. For these next-generation technologies, a new computing paradigm is needed. Neuromorphic devices mimic processing capabilities of the brain, a powerful computer for immersive tasks.

“Biocompatibility, flexibility, and softness of our artificial synapses is essential,” said Dmitry Kireev, a post-doctoral researcher who co-led the project. “In the future, we envision their direct integration with the human brain, paving the way for futuristic brain prosthesis.”

Will It Really Happen: Neuromorphic platforms are starting to become more common. Leading chipmakers such as Intel and Samsung have either produced neuromorphic chips already or are in the process of developing them. However, current chip materials place limitations on what neuromorphic devices can do, so academic researchers are working hard to find the perfect materials for soft brain-like computers.

“It’s still a big open space when it comes to materials; it hasn’t been narrowed down to the next big solution to try,” Incorvia said. “And it might not be narrowed down to just one solution, with different materials making more sense for different applications.”

The Team: The research was led by Incorvia and Deji Akinwande, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The two have collaborated many times together in the past, and Akinwande is a leading expert in graphene, using it in multiple research breakthroughs, most recently as part of a wearable electronic tattoo for blood pressure monitoring.

The idea for the project was conceived by Samuel Liu, a Ph.D. student and first author on the paper, in a class taught by Akinwande. Kireev then suggested the specific project. Harrison Jin, an undergraduate electrical and computer engineering student, measured the devices and analyzed data.

The team collaborated with T. Patrick Xiao and Christopher Bennett of Sandia National Laboratories, who ran neural network simulations and analyzed the resulting data.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the ‘graphene transistor’ paper,

Metaplastic and energy-efficient biocompatible graphene artificial synaptic transistors for enhanced accuracy neuromorphic computing by Dmitry Kireev, Samuel Liu, Harrison Jin, T. Patrick Xiao, Christopher H. Bennett, Deji Akinwande & Jean Anne C. Incorvia. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 4386 (2022) DOI: Published: 28 July 2022

This paper is open access.

Making longer lasting bandages with sound and bubbles

This research into longer lasting bandages described in an August 12, 2022 news item on comes from McGill University (Montréal, Canada)

Researchers have discovered that they can control the stickiness of adhesive bandages using ultrasound waves and bubbles. This breakthrough could lead to new advances in medical adhesives, especially in cases where adhesives are difficult to apply such as on wet skin.

“Bandages, glues, and stickers are common bioadhesives that are used at home or in clinics. However, they don’t usually adhere well on wet skin. It’s also challenging to control where they are applied and the strength and duration of the formed adhesion,” says McGill University Professor Jianyu Li, who led the research team of engineers, physicists, chemists, and clinicians.

Caption: Adhesive hydrogel applied on skin under ultrasound probe. Credit: Ran Huo and Jianyu Li

An August 12, 2022 McGill University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

“We were surprised to find that by simply playing around with ultrasonic intensity, we can control very precisely the stickiness of adhesive bandages on many tissues,” says lead author Zhenwei Ma, a former student of Professor Li and now a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia.

Ultrasound induced bubbles control stickiness

In collaboration with physicists Professor Outi Supponen and Claire Bourquard from the Institute of Fluid Dynamics at ETH Zurich, the team experimented with ultrasound induced microbubbles to make adhesives stickier. “The ultrasound induces many microbubbles, which transiently push the adhesives into the skin for stronger bioadhesion,” says Professor Supponen. “We can even use theoretical modeling to estimate exactly where the adhesion will happen.”

Their study, published in the journal Science, shows that the adhesives are compatible with living tissue in rats. The adhesives can also potentially be used to deliver drugs through the skin. “This paradigm-shifting technology will have great implications in many branches of medicine,” says University of British Columbia Professor Zu-hua Gao. “We’re very excited to translate this technology for applications in clinics for tissue repair, cancer therapy, and precision medicine.”

“By merging mechanics, materials and biomedical engineering, we envision the broad impact of our bioadhesive technology in wearable devices, wound management, and regenerative medicine,” says Professor Li, who is also a Canada Research Chair in Biomaterials and Musculoskeletal Health.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Controlled tough bioadhesion mediated by ultrasound by Zhenwei Ma, Claire Bourquard, Qiman Gao, Shuaibing Jiang, Tristan De Iure-Grimmel, Ran Huo, Xuan Li, Zixin He, Zhen Yang, Galen Yang, Yixiang Wang, Edmond Lam, Zu-hua Gao, Outi Supponen and Jianyu Li. Science 11 Aug 2022 Vol 377, Issue 6607 pp. 751-755 DOI: 10.1126/science.abn8699

This paper is behind a paywall.

I haven’t seen this before but it seems that one of the journal’s editors decided to add a standalone paragraph to hype some of the other papers about adhesives in the issue,

A sound way to make it stick

Tissue adhesives play a role in temporary or permanent tissue repair, wound management, and the attachment of wearable electronics. However, it can be challenging to tailor the adhesive strength to ensure reversibility when desired and to maintain permeability. Ma et al. designed hydrogels made of polyacrylamide or poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) combined with alginate that are primed using a solution containing nanoparticles of chitosan, gelatin, or cellulose nanocrystals (see the Perspective by Es Sayed and Kamperman). The application of ultrasound causes cavitation that pushes the primer molecules into the tissue. The mechanical interlocking of the anchors eventually results in strong adhesion between hydrogel and tissue without the need for chemical bonding. Tests on porcine or rat skin showed enhanced adhesion energy and interfacial fatigue resistance with on-demand detachment. —MSL

I like the wordplay and am guessing that MSL is:

Marc S. Lavine
Senior Editor
Education: BASc, University of Toronto; PhD, University of Cambridge
Areas of responsibility: Reviews; materials science, biomaterials, engineering

Electrotactile rendering device virtualizes the sense of touch

I stumbled across this November 15, 2022 news item on Nanowerk highlighting work on the sense of touch in the virual originally announced in October 2022,

A collaborative research team co-led by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has developed a wearable tactile rendering system, which can mimic the sensation of touch with high spatial resolution and a rapid response rate. The team demonstrated its application potential in a braille display, adding the sense of touch in the metaverse for functions such as virtual reality shopping and gaming, and potentially facilitating the work of astronauts, deep-sea divers and others who need to wear thick gloves.

Here’s what you’ll need to wear for this virtual tactile experience,

Caption: The new wearable tactile rendering system can mimic touch sensations with high spatial resolution and a rapid response rate. Credit: Robotics X Lab and City University of Hong Kong

An October 20, 2022 City University of Hong Kong (CityU) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

“We can hear and see our families over a long distance via phones and cameras, but we still cannot feel or hug them. We are physically isolated by space and time, especially during this long-lasting pandemic,” said Dr Yang Zhengbao,Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering of CityU, who co-led the study. “Although there has been great progress in developing sensors that digitally capture tactile features with high resolution and high sensitivity, we still lack a system that can effectively virtualize the sense of touch that can record and playback tactile sensations over space and time.”

In collaboration with Chinese tech giant Tencent’s Robotics X Laboratory, the team developed a novel electrotactile rendering system for displaying various tactile sensations with high spatial resolution and a rapid response rate. Their findings were published in the scientific journal Science Advances under the title “Super-resolution Wearable Electro-tactile Rendering System”.

Limitations in existing techniques

Existing techniques to reproduce tactile stimuli can be broadly classified into two categories: mechanical and electrical stimulation. By applying a localised mechanical force or vibration on the skin, mechanical actuators can elicit stable and continuous tactile sensations. However, they tend to be bulky, limiting the spatial resolution when integrated into a portable or wearable device. Electrotactile stimulators, in contrast, which evoke touch sensations in the skin at the location of the electrode by passing a local electric current though the skin, can be light and flexible while offering higher resolution and a faster response. But most of them rely on high voltage direct-current (DC) pulses (up to hundreds of volts) to penetrate the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin, to stimulate the receptors and nerves, which poses a safety concern. Also, the tactile rendering resolution needed to be improved.

The latest electro-tactile actuator developed by the team is very thin and flexible and can be easily integrated into a finger cot. This fingertip wearable device can display different tactile sensations, such as pressure, vibration, and texture roughness in high fidelity. Instead of using DC pulses, the team developed a high-frequency alternating stimulation strategy and succeeded in lowering the operating voltage under 30 V, ensuring the tactile rendering is safe and comfortable.

They also proposed a novel super-resolution strategy that can render tactile sensation at locations between physical electrodes, instead of only at the electrode locations. This increases the spatial resolution of their stimulators by more than three times (from 25 to 105 points), so the user can feel more realistic tactile perception.

Tactile stimuli with high spatial resolution

“Our new system can elicit tactile stimuli with both high spatial resolution (76 dots/cm2), similar to the density of related receptors in the human skin, and a rapid response rate (4 kHz),” said Mr Lin Weikang, a PhD student at CityU, who made and tested the device.

The team ran different tests to show various application possibilities of this new wearable electrotactile rendering system. For example, they proposed a new Braille strategy that is much easier for people with a visual impairment to learn.

The proposed strategy breaks down the alphabet and numerical digits into individual strokes and order in the same way they are written. By wearing the new electrotactile rendering system on a fingertip, the user can recognise the alphabet presented by feeling the direction and the sequence of the strokes with the fingertip sensor. “This would be particularly useful for people who lose their eye sight later in life, allowing them to continue to read and write using the same alphabetic system they are used to, without the need to learn the whole Braille dot system,” said Dr Yang.

Enabling touch in the metaverse

Second, the new system is well suited for VR/AR [virtual reality/augmented reality] applications and games, adding the sense of touch to the metaverse. The electrodes can be made highly flexible and scalable to cover larger areas, such as the palm. The team demonstrated that a user can virtually sense the texture of clothes in a virtual fashion shop. The user also experiences an itchy sensation in the fingertips when being licked by a VR cat. When stroking a virtual cat’s fur, the user can feel a variance in the roughness as the strokes change direction and speed.

The system can also be useful in transmitting fine tactile details through thick gloves. The team successfully integrated the thin, light electrodes of the electrotactile rendering system into flexible tactile sensors on a safety glove. The tactile sensor array captures the pressure distribution on the exterior of the glove and relays the information to the user in real time through tactile stimulation. In the experiment, the user could quickly and accurately locate a tiny steel washer just 1 mm in radius and 0.44mm thick based on the tactile feedback from the glove with sensors and stimulators. This shows the system’s potential in enabling high-fidelity tactile perception, which is currently unavailable to astronauts, firefighters, deep-sea divers and others who need wear thick protective suits or gloves.

“We expect our technology to benefit a broad spectrum of applications, such as information transmission, surgical training, teleoperation, and multimedia entertainment,” added Dr Yang.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Super-resolution wearable electrotactile rendering system by Weikang Lin, Dongsheng Zhang, Wang Wei Lee, Xuelong Li, Ying Hong, Qiqi Pan, Ruirui Zhang, Guoxiang Peng, Hong Z. Tan, Zhengyou Zhang, Lei Wei, and Zhengbao Yang. Science Advances 9 Sep 2022 Vol 8, Issue 36 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abp8738

This paper is open access.