Drawing bioelectronics on human skin

Wednesday, 15 July, 2020

Drawing bioelectronics on human skin

One day, people could monitor their own health conditions by simply picking up a pencil and drawing a bioelectronic device on their skin.

That’s according to engineers from the University of Missouri (MU), who claim that the simple combination of pencils and paper could be used to create devices for monitoring personal health. Their research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

As explained by Zheng Yan, an assistant professor at MU, many existing commercial on-skin biomedical devices often contain two major components — a biomedical tracking component and a surrounding flexible material, such as plastic, to provide a supportive structure for the component to maintain an on-skin connection with a person’s body.

“The conventional approach for developing an on-skin biomedical electronic device is usually complex and often expensive to produce,” Yan said. “In contrast, our approach is low cost and very simple. We can make a similar device using widely available pencils and paper.”

The researchers discovered that pencils containing more than 90% graphite are able to conduct a high amount of energy created from the friction between paper and pencil caused by drawing or writing. Specifically, they found that pencils with 93% graphite were best for creating a variety of on-skin bioelectronic devices drawn on commercial office copy paper.

One benefit of this approach, Yan said, is that paper can decompose in about a week, compared to many commercial devices that contain components that are not easily broken down. He added that a biocompatible spray-on adhesive could be applied to the paper to help it stick better to a person’s skin.

The researchers said their discovery could have broad future applications in home-based, personalised health care, education and remote scientific research such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yan said the group’s next step would be to further develop and test the use of the biomedical components, including electrophysiological, temperature and biochemical sensors.

“For example, if a person has a sleep issue, we could draw a biomedical device that could help monitor that person’s sleep levels,” he said. “Or in the classroom, a teacher could engage students by incorporating the creation of a wearable device using pencils and paper into a lesson plan. Furthermore, this low-cost, easily customisable approach could allow scientists to conduct research at home, such as during a pandemic.”

The news coincides with the release of a new report from Global Market Insights, which found that the electronic skin market will be worth around US$16 billion by 2026 — up from US$6 billion in 2019 — with electronic skin and patches gaining prominence in prosthetic, robotic, cosmetic, diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

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