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New Blueprint for Developing Nanomaterials Holds Enormous Potential in Wearable Technology

Researchers from the University of Sussex have been developing wearable technology using nanomaterials, which will greatly benefit a wide spectrum of people such as newborn babies, hospital patients, elderly people, and sports enthusiasts.

A Sussex researcher holds a self-adhering medical patch made from scalably printed graphene layer on rubber. Image Credit: University of Sussex.

A “blueprint” has been published by Physicist Dr Conor Boland from the University of Sussex to help researchers comprehend how to enhance the efficiency of the nanomaterials used in health sensors.

Nanomaterials exhibit the potential to provide the key to wearable technology that monitors blood pressure, breathing, pulse, and joint movement wirelessly and in real time. But the question of how to turn these flexible materials into a more sensitive and stretchable one has puzzled scientists thus far.

Dr Boland’s paper, titled “Stumbling Through the Research Wilderness, Standard Methods to Shine Light on Electrically Conductive Nanocomposites for Future Health-Care Monitoring,” has been published in the renowned journal ACS Nano on December 13th.

After investigating data from 200 publications on the topic, Dr Conor Boland’s paper unravels for the first time the problem that the more a material can be stretched, the less sensitive it becomes.

However, by presenting a new technique for scientists to define their data, Dr Boland has come up with a technique for scientists to comprehend how flexibilities and sensitivities can be improved. These health monitoring nano-based materials must be adequately sensitive to measure a pulse with its subtle low strain stimuli, and also to preserve that sensitivity while measuring the huge strains of a bending joint.

The publication of this blueprint opens up enormous potential for all scientists in this field. Dr Boland is optimistic it will result in a new golden age of healthcare, introducing wearable, nanomaterials-based real-time health tracking devices.

The goal of our research is to create soft, wearable health sensors using cost-efficient nanomaterials which are capable of real-time health monitoring. The potential of these materials would be invaluable to doctor surgeries and hospitals. But until now, researchers have been unable to compare our own successes with those of others. We’ve been making progress in a way which is akin to wandering into a dark wood with no torch.

Dr Conor Boland, Lecturer in Materials Physics, School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University of Sussex

Dr Boland continued, “Our blueprint now shows researchers the way, unleashing the potential for many applications to follow. I hope these products will bring about the next golden age of healthcare, by allowing medics to be alerted remotely to changes in a patient’s health.”

He further added, “The devices we’re working towards could provide early warning systems for a range of people: poorly patients on busy hospital wards; elderly people in care homes at risk of falling or sudden illness; those at risk of anaphylactic shock, characterised by a sudden drop in blood pressure.”

By spotting changes in pulse, blood pressure, joint movement and respiration rates, these products could potentially identify sickness before external symptoms reveal themselves. In that way, a patient could be helped sooner.

Dr Conor Boland, Lecturer in Materials Physics, School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University of Sussex

Dr Boland continued, “There’s scope for private commercial use too. Professional and amateur sport enthusiasts should in time see more effective health monitors coming to market. They may provide more accurate diagnostic sensors for rugby players or boxers at risk of concussion, which are sorely needed. And health sensors using nanomaterials could help worried parents too, whether that’s by alerting them to a newborn at risk of cot-death or a toddler with soaring temperatures and respiration rates.”

This blueprint we’ve published paves the way all of that.

Dr Conor Boland, Lecturer in Materials Physics, School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University of Sussex

This study specifically examines materials called nanocomposites, a combination of a nanomaterial and a stretchy polymer, used as non-invasive sensors worn on the body. They are either placed on the skin or integrated into wireless devices analogous to existing commercial fitness devices.

To measure blood pressure or pulse, the material would be placed across the skin above the artery in the wrist or neck. To measure a bending joint, the material would be attached across the knuckle in the hand or knee.

The study explores the relationship between three things: sensitivity (gauge factor), the extent to which a material can stretch while making a measurement (working factor), and the stiffness (Young’s modulus) of a material, offering standards for each, which would define the performance of an ideal sensing material.

Although graphene is the most well-known nanomaterial, there are hundreds of others such as Transition Metal Dichalcogenides, Metallic Nanowires, Carbon Nanotubes, and MXenes.


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