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Nanomaterials August 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Marianne Monteforte

Nanosensor Tattoos for Medical Applications

Why is this topic significant?

Research in the field of health sensors that can record physiological data from the user's skin is progressing. Scientists at the University of Tokyo have developed and tested soft flexible gold nanomesh sensors that adhere to the user's skin like a temporary tattoo.

Description

A challenge for wearable health sensors that lie close to the skin is in developing sensors that are suitable for patient use—sensors, for example, that are not uncomfortable and do not restrict movement or inhibit sweating. Conventional electronics cannot reliably work as part of a flexible device and have a number of shortcomings. New research from the University of Tokyo has addressed some of these issues. Professor Takao Someya and colleagues fabricated a thin, wearable device that adheres to the skin like a temporary tattoo.

The researchers devised the sensor by electrospinning a conductive gold nanomesh structure onto a polyvinvyl-alcohol fiber support. The sensor is easy to apply to skin—by direct lamination, leaving only the gold nanomesh (after dissolving the polymer support). The research team conducted clinical trials of the sensor on 20 participants. In their initial tests of the sensor, the researchers successfully conducted electromyogram measurements. Also, the researchers' one-week skin tests revealed that the temporary tattoo is mechanically durable (the devices presented no signs of wear after use) and gas permeable and caused minimal patient discomfort or inflammation.

Implications

Current health-monitoring devices for medical purposes require electrodes that attach to the skin and connect with leads to bulky equipment. Although research is progressing in the field of wireless paper-based sensors, the texture of the paper can make such sensors uncomfortable for patient use. Temporary tattoos offer physicians (and users) an inexpensive, discreet, disposable, and nonintrusive method of gathering and recording data from patients. The Tokyo University researchers' development of a nanomesh temporary tattoo enables several improvements to current temporary tattoos (because of the nanomesh structure). Nevertheless, further research and trials of the temporary tattoo will be necessary for the researchers to determine if it is mechanically durable enough to withstand other environmental conditions. And in reality, considerable time will be necessary for electronic tattoos to clear the appropriate regulatory hurdles.

Impacts/Disruptions

The commercialization of nanomaterial-based sensors has the potential to disrupt traditional diagnostic techniques. Partnerships between nanomaterials suppliers and medical-sensor developers could prove to be effective means of bringing emerging technologies to market. In the meantime, temporary-tattoo sensors could find a route to commercialization through their use in applications with less regulatory oversight—for example, in health-monitoring devices in nonprofessional sports, touch-screen interfaces to control video games, or music players. Also, in the future, temporary tattoos could find use as sensors or electronic skin in advanced prosthetics or even in robotics.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, sensors, big data, sports, games

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Artificial Synapses

Why is this topic significant?

Neuromorphic chips can mimic the complexity of the human brain in power and function alike. Recent neuroscience insights and the application of nanotechnology have led to improvements in the functionality and versatility of artificial synapses that could enhance the speed and performance of artificial-intelligence tasks.

Description

The standard computing model—the Von Neumann approach—involves pushing data to a processor, which calculates it and sends it back to memory. This approach can create bottlenecks between memory and storage. Major academic institutions and tech companies (for example, IBM and Intel) are investing in R&D for new computing models—for example, neuromorphic chips—that eliminate the bottlenecks. Neuromorphic nanochips are also a key enabling technology behind the design of artificial neural networks (ANNs, or "artificial brains")—that comprise artificial neurons and synapses.

Conventional solid-state artificial synapses can process only one signal at a time, whereas a biological synapse can process two signals: excitatory or inhibitory. In the human body, the excitatory-response signals strengthen connections (causing the brain to be alert) and the inhibitory-response signals weaken connections (causing the brain to relax). In June 2017, a group of researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) and Beihang University (Beijing, China) published details about their development of an artificial synapse that can process both signals. The nanoelectronic device comprises black-phosphorus junctions and tin selenide that enables switching between the excitatory and inhibitory signals. The device is also flexible and versatile—both highly desirable features in ANNs.

Implications

Many research teams are focusing their research efforts on improving the function and performance of artificial synapses, which is central to the development of ANNs. Unlike conventional solid-state artificial-synapse devices—such as field-effect transistor-type and memristor-type synapses—the USC and Beihang University researchers' new artificial-synapse technology, which employs nanomaterials, can reconfigure into either excitatory or inhibitory modes. The artificial synapses' ability to mimic the two different states of the biological synapse could help developers create complex ANNs that can reconfigure like the brain can and that improve the performance of artificial-intelligence tasks (such as image recognition, learning, and cognition). However, although nanoscale devices are the obvious choice for scaling memory chips, these devices come with their own set of problems. For example, nanoscale devices can create a lot of noise and sometimes lack the stability to process data reliably.

Impacts/Disruptions

Research teams are developing artificial synapses that can process and store digital information. To scale artificial systems to a level close to that of the human brain, ANNs need to contain a vast number of synapses. Research developments in nanomaterials (in particular two-dimensional nanomaterials such as black phosphorus) can play a key role in such neuron-inspired computing technologies. Moreover, nanomaterials are suitable for nanodevice fabrication methods that include low-cost manipulation and assembly of materials with bottom-up techniques. Nanomaterials could also be of benefit for future developments that connect artificial neuromorphic devices and ANN computing circuits in three dimensions.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Nanoelectronics, Internet of Things, big data, artificial intelligence

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: