About a year ago, University of Illinois researcher John Rogers revealed a pretty amazing creation: a circuit that, rather than living on an inflexible board, could stick to and move with someone’s skin just like an ink stamp. But like any early research, it was mostly a proof-of-concept, and it would require relatively expensive, custom-printed electronics to work.
Today, Rogers, in conjunction with Northwestern University's Yonggang Huang, has published details on version 2.0 in Science, revealing that this once-esoteric project has more immediate, mass market appeal.
The new product is thicker and more robust than the original circuit, yet it sticks to the skin as easily as a temporary tattoo. Its base layer serves as a flexible, conductive foundation. (Under a microscope, it folds like origami.) Researchers then fitted that base layer with cylindrical supports that can connect to third-party electronic components.
So what’s that mean? It means that you could create a wearable electronic that’s one-part special sticky circuit board, every other part whatever-the-hell-you-manufactured-in-China. This flexible circuit could accommodate a stock battery, an accelerometer, a Wi-Fi chip, and a Bluetooth circuitry, for instance, all living on your skin rather than inside your iPhone. And as an added bonus, it would be relatively cheap.
“One big advantage of commercial chips is that they are very low in cost: total parts costs, even for the multifunctional patch, is a few bucks,” researcher John Rogers explains. “The materials costs for the substrate and the fluid and the interconnects is a few 10s of cents.”
That price matches the longevity, as Rogers tells us the sticky circuits will last hours, maybe a day, before you have to remove them. For now, the team's research focuses on health care applications. They've designed their device as a 24/7 body monitoring patch to be used in tricky field tests like sleep studies, where bulkier hardware is a burden. (As we reported before, Rogers would like to eventually create circuits that can stick to your organs.) Health monitoring is far from a pipe dream. In the researchers' testing, the sticky circuits measured EKG/EEGs, for instance, with as much accuracy as existing machinery.
Rogers estimates that the technology will hit the market in one and a half to two years, through his commercial venture MC10.