University of Illinois researchers develop skin-like electronics

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The electronic “tattoo” that topped mainstream-media news sites Friday—by noon it had sparked more than 500 headline links on Google News—holds real promise for healthcare applications. In a paper published in the Aug. 12 edition of the journal Science, researchers tell how they designed the ultra-thin, skin-like electronic patch with components for sensing, medical diagnostics, communications and human-machine interfaces.

The patch can bend, wrinkle and stretch with the skin, the researchers reported. Patches are mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic, and then laminated to the skin with water. The technology offers possibilities that range from monitoring neurological diseases to tracking muscle movements.

“We threw everything in our bag of tricks onto that platform, and then added a few other new ideas on top of those, to show that we could make it work,” stated lead researcher John A. Rogers, PhD, professor of engineering at the University of Illinois (UI) at Urbana-Champaign, in a press release.

“We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer,” stated co-leader Todd Coleman, PhD, an electrical and computer-engineering professor at UI. “The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable.”

Using EEG and EMG sensors, the patches could be used to monitor nerve and muscle activity, and they don’t require conductive gel, tape, skin-penetrating pins or bulky wires, according to the researchers. Because they’re less cumbersome than current monitoring devices, the technology may allow researchers to better study patient signals in natural settings.

“If we want to understand brain function in a natural environment, that’s completely incompatible with EEG studies in the laboratory,” stated Coleman. “The best way to do that is to record neural signals in natural settings, with devices that are invisible to the user.”

Rogers collaborated on the project with Northwestern University engineering professor Yonggang Huang and researchers to develop the device geometry—they've dubbed its shape “filamentary serpentine”—to create tiny circuits used in the patches.

“The blurring of electronics and biology is really the key point here,” Huang stated. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid. Biology is soft, elastic. It’s two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them.”

Researchers are next working to develop systems with the technology and add wi-fi capabilitiy.

“The vision is to exploit these concepts in systems that have self-contained, integrated functionality, perhaps ultimately working in a therapeutic fashion with closed feedback-control based on integrated sensors, in a coordinated manner with the body itself,” Rogers stated.