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Innovative Material Paves Way for Next-Generation Wearable Devices

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 24 May 2024
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Image: Pictured are stretchable wearable devices incorporated on the newly developed material substrate (Photo courtesy of Raudel Avila/Rice University and Sun Hong Kim/Hanyang University)
Image: Pictured are stretchable wearable devices incorporated on the newly developed material substrate (Photo courtesy of Raudel Avila/Rice University and Sun Hong Kim/Hanyang University)

Wireless modules that integrate telecommunications and power-harvesting capabilities, powered by radio-frequency (RF) electronics, are crucial for advancing skin-interfaced stretchable electronics. Despite their potential, these devices often face challenges under even minimal levels of strain which can alter critical electrical properties like antenna resonance frequency, leading to decreased signal strength or power-transfer efficiency. This issue is particularly significant when the devices are used on dynamic surfaces such as human skin. To address this, researchers have now developed a new material that not only maintains consistent signal strength but also mimics the movement of skin, opening the door to more reliable and advanced wearable devices that provide continuous wireless connectivity without the need for batteries.

The material was developed by an international team of researchers from Rice University (Houston, TX, USA) and Hanyang University (Seoul, South Korea) by embedding clusters of highly dielectric ceramic nanoparticles into an elastic polymer. This innovative material was reverse-engineered to mimic the elasticity and types of movement of human skin while enhancing its dielectric properties to counter the negative effects of motion on electronic interfaces, reduce energy loss, and dissipate heat effectively. The strategic placement and distribution pattern of the nanoparticles embedded in the substrate are crucial; the spacing and cluster shapes of these particles are designed to stabilize the electrical properties and maintain the resonant frequency of RF components essential for reliable performance.

Wearable technologies are revolutionizing healthcare by enabling innovative ways of monitoring, diagnosing, and managing health. The market for smart wear, especially in health and fitness, is rapidly expanding due to the transformative impact of these technologies. To explore the practical applications of this new material, the researchers constructed various stretchable wireless devices, such as antennas, coils, and transmission lines. They tested these devices on both the newly developed substrate and a standard elastomer lacking the ceramic nanoparticles. Their findings indicated that the wireless operational range of their far-field communication systems surpassed that of any other comparable skin-interfaced systems previously reported.

Additionally, this material shows great potential to enhance wireless connectivity across multiple wearable devices designed to conform to different body parts and sizes. For example, the team created wearable bionic bands for placement on the head, knee, arm, or wrist, which could monitor a wide array of health data, including EEG and EMG signals, knee movements, and body temperature. Specifically, a headband made from this material demonstrated exceptional stretchability—up to 30% for a toddler's head and 50% for an adult's—while still being able to transmit real-time EEG data over a wireless distance of 30 meters.

“Our team was able to combine simulations and experiments to understand how to design a material that can seamlessly deform like skin and change the way electrical charges distribute inside it when it is stretched so as to stabilize radio-frequency communication,” said Raudel Avila, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Rice. “Skin-interfaced stretchable RF devices that can seamlessly conform to skin morphology and monitor key physiological signals require critical design of the individual material layouts and the electronic components to yield mechanical and electrical properties and performance that do not disrupt a user’s experience. As wearables continue to evolve and influence the way society interacts with technology, particularly in the context of medical technology, the design and development of highly efficient stretchable electronics become critical for stable wireless connectivity.”

Related Links:
Rice University
Hanyang University

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