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Sensors made from "electronic spider silk" work on any surface

Researchers have created an ingenious method to produce adaptive and eco-friendly bioelectronic sensors that can be seamlessly printed onto various biological surfaces, from human fingers to delicate flower petals.

This innovative approach draws inspiration from the remarkable properties of spider silk, which can adhere to a wide range of surfaces while maintaining its structural integrity.

The research, led by Professor Yan Yan Shery Huang from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, has been published in the journal Nature Electronics.

The team’s cutting-edge technique involves spinning bioelectronic fibers from a combination of PEDOT:PSS, hyaluronic acid, and polyethylene oxide, resulting in high-performance sensors that are imperceptible to the host.

Bioelectronic sensors are imperceptible

One of the most striking aspects of these bioelectronic sensors is their ability to conform to the surface they are printed on, whether it’s human skin or the fluffy seedhead of a dandelion.

The fibers, which are at least 50 times thinner than a human hair, are so lightweight that they can be printed directly onto delicate structures without causing any damage.

When applied to human skin, these sensors seamlessly integrate with the surface, exposing the sweat pores without the wearer detecting their presence.

This opens up exciting possibilities for continuous health monitoring, as demonstrated by tests conducted on human fingers.

Professor Huang highlights the significance of the device-surface interface, stating, “If you want to accurately sense anything on a biological surface like skin or a leaf, the interface between the device and the surface is vital.”

Huang further emphasizes the team’s commitment to developing bioelectronics that seamlessly blend with the user’s experience, ensuring minimal interference and maximum sustainability.

Sustainable and low-waste

The Cambridge-led team’s approach addresses the need for imperceptible bioelectronic sensors while tackling the issue of sustainability.

Traditional wearable technologies often rely on energy- and waste-intensive manufacturing techniques, resulting in devices that can be uncomfortable and obtrusive.

In contrast, the bioelectronic fibers developed by the researchers can be produced using a low-waste and low-emission method.

The sensors are made from water-based solutions at room temperature, allowing for precise control over the fibers’ properties.

This innovative spinning approach enables the fibers to adapt to various living surfaces, down to the level of microstructures such as fingerprints.

Andy Wang, the lead author of the study, emphasizes the adaptability of their approach, explaining, “Our spinning approach allows the bioelectronic fibers to follow the anatomy of different shapes, at both the micro and macro scale, without the need for any image recognition.”

He further highlights the potential impact of this technology on sustainable electronics and sensor production, stating, “It revolutionizes the way we think about manufacturing eco-friendly sensors and opens up new possibilities for large-scale sensor integration.”

Repairable and biodegradable

Another key advantage of these bioelectronic sensors is their repairability and biodegradability. Unlike conventional sensors that require complex manufacturing processes and generate significant waste, these fibers can be easily washed away when they have reached the end of their useful lifetime.

The entire process generates less than a single milligram of waste, a stark contrast to the 600 to 1500 milligrams of fiber waste produced by a typical load of laundry.

Professor Huang highlights the adaptability of their technology, stating, “Using our simple fabrication technique, we can put sensors almost anywhere and repair them where and when they need it.”

Huang explains that their approach eliminates the reliance on large-scale equipment and centralized production.

This enables the creation of sensors on-demand, directly at the point of application, while significantly reducing waste and emissions generated during the manufacturing process.

Potential applications for bioelectronic sensors

The potential use cases for these bioelectronic sensors are vast, ranging from healthcare and virtual reality to precision agriculture and environmental monitoring.

The researchers envision that their devices could revolutionize the way we interact with the world around us, providing seamless and continuous monitoring without compromising comfort or sustainability.

Looking ahead, the team plans to explore the incorporation of other functional materials into their fiber printing method.

By integrating display, computation, and energy conversion functions, they aim to create integrated fiber sensors that can augment living systems in unprecedented ways.

With the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialization arm, this research is set to make a significant impact across various industries.

Weaving the future from electronic spider silk

In summary, the development of imperceptible, eco-friendly, and adaptive bioelectronic sensors by the Cambridge-led research team marks a significant milestone in the field of wearable technology.

By drawing inspiration from spider silk and leveraging innovative spinning techniques, these researchers have created sensors that seamlessly integrate with biological surfaces, offer continuous monitoring capabilities, and prioritize sustainability throughout their life cycle.

As this amazing technology moves towards commercialization, it holds immense potential to revolutionize various industries, from healthcare and virtual reality to precision agriculture and environmental monitoring.

With the promise of enhancing user experiences, reducing waste, and decentralizing manufacturing, these bioelectronic sensors are poised to weave a future where technology and nature harmoniously intertwine.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Electronics.


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