UT Professor Develops High-Tech Monitoring “Tattoo”

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Temporary tattoos have never been cooler.

A UT assistant professor and her team have developed an electronic “tattoo” that mimics the mass, thickness, and elasticity of human skin. Named for the way it adheres to the skin, the tattoo is non-invasive way to gather data from the human body by measuring your heartbeat, brain activity, and electrical signals from muscle.

1Biointegrated_electronics-flickrNanshu Lu, an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering, is one of the minds responsible for creating this high-tech device that is revolutionizing the field of bio-integrated electronics.

“It is a piece of integrated electronics,” says Lu. “It’s a simpler version of your computer chips.”

But there’s one major difference between this tattoo and a computer chip: So small and thin it can actually be hidden by a temporary tattoo, this “soft, flexible, and conformable” tattoo is capable of adhering to human skin without an adhesive.

Lu started work on the project in early 2010 when she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois. Working under leading flexible electronics researcher John Rogers, BA, BS ’89, Lu tested several different ways of integrating a computer-like chip to the skin and reducing its thickness.

Lu also had to figure out a way to overcome the intrinsic brittleness and stiffness of such a device, as metal and silicon are much stiffer than human skin. To do this, she and her team opted to use serpentine wires instead of straight ones so their stiffness would more closely resemble that of human skin.

The result was a device made out of filamentary micro-metal and silicon wires that has three layers—a rigid banking layer, a thin, tissue-like polymer, and a final layer of circuitry.

4Biointegrated_electronics-flickr The tattoo, which Lu estimates took about $200,000 to develop (not including labor costs), is opening up the possibility of further developments in the near future. In fact, it could soon be used to detect things like atrial fibrillation—the most common heart arrhythmia—or the onset of tremor for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s not limited,” Lu says. “It really opens up a new opportunity for other engineers to take advantage of this platform technology.”

Photos courtesy of UT Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics via Flickr Creative Commons.


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