Stretchable and conformal electronics for peace of mind

-February 07, 2014

Some of the latest stretchable electronics are bringing the Internet of Things to health and safety products, and enabling a whole new world of medical and health monitoring, and not just for professional or Olympic athletes.

We are all aware of how important stretching is before and after exercising, but who would have thought that stretching would ever be important to electronics? After all up until recently, electronics have been made of rigid hard materials. New advances in stretchable and conformal electronics (think of a transparent Band-aid like material with integrated electronics) will enable new surgical procedures and the development of biomedical devices that can interface directly with organs such as the skin, heart, and brain.  

A startup company called MC10  in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing high-performance electronics such as skin patches and inflatable balloon catheters that can stretch. MC10’s technology incorporates silicon devices the width of a human hair combined with stretchable metallic interconnects and elastic rubberlike polymers, to form a complete powered system capable of sensing, measuring, analyzing and communicating information.

Reebok embedded MC10’s electronics into a soft skullcap, the Reebok Checklight, to measure the impacts an athlete sustains during contact sports. It is not surprising that Reebok’s Checklight is MC10’s first commercial application of their technology since the company’s founder is former Seahawk NFL linebacker and Harvard graduate Isaiah Kacyvenski. And this stuff isn’t just aimed at Olympic athletes; one of the company’s goals is to make the technology available and affordable to everyone.

Figure 1 Virtually invisible and conformal electronic skin patch  (photo courtesy of MC10)

MC10 has other plans in mind for its technology as well. Since the skin patches will be able to monitor and measure people’s vital signs, it can be used on infants to monitor their breathing while they sleep and give parents some piece of mind.

This reminds me of when my own kids were babies (they are teenagers now). I remember being so worried about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) each night as I laid them down to sleep that I bought one of those monitor pads that is placed under the mattress of the crib. I slept so much better knowing that I had the wireless remote monitor next to me each night that would ring an alarm if the baby stopped breathing. In general it worked quite well, except for the couple of nights that I awoke to the piercing sound of the alarm and ran to the baby’s room to find he had simply moved off of the mattress pad sensor. That won’t be an issue with MC10’s new stretchable electronic skin patch that conforms to the baby’s body.  

Figure 2. Wearable sensors capable of monitoring human vital signs  (photo courtesy of MC10)

And of personal interest to me are MC10’s stretchable, skin-friendly cosmetic stickers that can alert you by phone when it is time to reapply sunscreen or recommend personalized skincare products by measuring your skin’s properties while you sleep.

MC10 also plans to use their stretchable electronic technology to create balloon catheters for use in cardiology and eventually in implantable devices that can conform to brain tissue to sense and prevent seizures.  Since medical applications such as these must adhere to stringent requirements and standards, it might be a few years before we see them in practical use. One thing is for sure, stretchable electronics have changed the way we view basic PCB technology whose rigid structure has limited its use in the past for biomedical applications.

What do you think? Will stretchable electronics reshape the future?

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