e-Skin in action

Wearable tech is a term that has been bouncing around for a few years now. Basically, it refers to technology or electronics that can be worn on the body, or directly on the skin. Examples of wearable tech include smartwatches, smart rings, pedometers, heart-rate monitors and other nifty gadgets designed to improve our health, or provide information on the go.

Aside from smartwatches, most of the electronic tech has been aimed at the fitness and health sector, with devices designed to measure heart rate, blood glucose levels, oxygen levels, skin temperature, chemical changes and other bio-feedback.

Up until now, the main issue has been the precision with which these devices can read and relay data. Unless firmly strapped to the skin, most electronic tech tends to miss key information, and provides inaccurate feedback. If you enjoy playing online slots and want to monitor your heart rate to ensure you keep excitement levels in check, this inaccuracy can be an issue, especially if you win the jackpot!

The e-Skin Evolution

Subsequently, researchers have been looking at other ways to gather bio data more accurately. The most promising results came from laying an electronic sensor directly onto the skin via a lightweight skin patch. The common term for the tech is e-skin.

While the feedback and data results of e-skin have been promising, the ultrathin elastic materials holding the electrodes in place have one major flaw. Their lack of breathability has made them unsafe for long-term use. So, while they are able to conform to the shape of the body and provide accurate feedback, they cannot be worn for more than a few hours at a time. This would work for fitness monitoring, but not for long-term health issues.

Breathability and Functionality Come Together

The good news is that researchers in Japan have come up with an ingenious answer to this problem. They have developed a fully hypoallergenic electronic sensor constructed from breathable nanoscale mesh. According to reports, the sensor can be worn continuously on the surface of the skin for a full week without any discomfort or adverse health issues.

Professor Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering said that the research team found out for the purposes of health monitoring, devices would have to be worn for a week or longer. The breathability problem of conventional e-skin products hampered the ability for patients to wear the device for extended periods. It was found that the blocking of sweat pores caused extended physiological problems in the body.

How the Device Works

Taking this into consideration, the Japanese research group developed an organic electrode constructed from nanoscale meshes. The mesh contains a water-soluble polymer and a gold layer, both materials that have been proven to be safe and compatible with the biological systems of the body. The revolutionary e-skin device is applied simply by spraying a small amount of water onto the skin. This dissolves the polymer nanofibers and allows the mesh to stick without discomfort. The mesh is so adaptable and resilient it is able to conform to sweat pores and the ridges of the finger.

Once the initial development stage was done, researchers then set about doing a skin patch test to determine whether the device causes any irritations or skin allergies. 20 subjects volunteered for the test, with no inflammations found on any of the participants. The same group of subjects also tested the permeability of the nano-mesh compared to conventional e-skin devices. It was found that the porous mesh provides superior permeability across the board.

In the lab, scientists tested out the mechanical durability of the device by bending and stretching the electronic skin over 10 000 times from a conductor worn on the forefinger. At the same time, they established the reliability of the electrode when comparing the readings of muscle actively to conventional gel electrodes.

The Future of e-Skin

Having passed all tests with flying colours, the nanoscale e-skin mesh has been singled out for potential use in the health and sports sector. Currently, the tech allows for electronic measurements of the body’s electrical signals and movements. It also allows for the monitoring of vital signs without any discomfort to the patient.

In the sports industry, the mesh can be applied to athletes for accurate measurement of physiological signals and body motion without affecting movement or performance.

The future of electronic skin technology is exciting, to say the least. While bio-feedback remains the key goal, the technology can be adapted for display purposes. Thus, it can be used to project electric tattoos, digital displays and even video graphics with the right setup. We could be looking at the future of smartphone displays or television mirroring, and we may no longer just have to love the skin we’re in, but the skin that we can create in a lab too!

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