Research delivers improved stretchable electronics

1 min read

A new sensor design, from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, looks to address the key problem associated with stretchable electronics, in that changes in shape can affect the data produced and means that sensors cannot collect and process signals accurately.

The human body can send out a host of signals - chemicals, electrical pulses, mechanical shifts - that can provide a wealth of information about our health, but electronic sensors that can detect these signals are often made of brittle, inorganic material that prevents them from stretching and bending on our skin or within our bodies.

By incorporating a patterned material that optimises strain distribution among transistors, researchers have been able to create stretchable electronics that are less compromised by deformation. They also created several circuit elements with the design, which could lead to even more types of stretchable electronics.

The results were published in the journal Nature Electronics. Asst. Prof. Sihong Wang, who led the research, is currently testing his design as a diagnostic tool for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a nervous system disease that causes loss of muscle control.

"We want to develop new kinds of electronics that can integrate with the human body," he said. "This new design allows electronics to stretch without compromising data and could ultimately help lead us to an out-of-clinic approach for monitoring our health."

The researchers used a patterned strain-distribution concept. When creating the transistor, they used substrates made of elastomer, an elastic polymer. They varied the density of the elastomer layers, meaning some remained softer, while others were stiffer while still elastic. The stiffer layers - termed "elastiff" by the researchers - were used for the active electronic areas.

The result was transistor arrays that had nearly the same electrical performance when they were stretched and bent as when they were undeformed. In fact, they had less than 5 percent performance variation when stretched with up to 100 percent strain.

The design team also used the concept to design and fabricate other circuit parts, including NOR gates, ring oscillators, and amplifiers. NOR gates are used in digital circuits, while ring oscillators are used in radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. By making these parts successfully stretchable, the researchers could make even more complex electronics.

The stretchable amplifier they developed is among the first skin-like circuit that is capable of amplifying weak electrophysiological signals - down to a few millivolts. That's important for sensing the body's weakest signals, like those from muscles. By measuring signals from muscles, the researchers hope to better diagnose the disease while gaining knowledge about how the disease affects the body.

The team is hoping to test their design in electronics that can be implanted within the body and create sensors for all kinds of bodily signals.