The Future is Here: Fabric Circuit Boards

fabric_circuitboard1Chances are that almost every piece of electronics handled by someone today is some sort of printed circuit board (PCB). PCBs are an essential part of modern technology, but as technology improves and moves into the realm of the wearable and the flexible, their rigid and flat design is being reconsidered. In addition to looking for more flexible materials, there’s also a desire to break the 2-dimensional mold.

That’s precisely what researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University were thinking of. Using a revolutionary, never-before-seen concept known as computerized knitting technology, they developed a new line of fabric circuit boards (FCBs).  To make them, lead scientists Qiao Li and Xiao Ming Tao at HKPU relied a combination of conductive fibrous metal materials and traditional fabric.

fabric_circuitboardWithin the FCB, the wires are the equivalent of the circuits on a regular board, and the fabric acts as the mounting material that keeps everything in the right orientation and insulates different circuits. The finished FCBs can contain 3D circuits that are resistant to bending, stretching, and washing. To test this, Li and Ming subjected the boards to repeated stretching and folding, and found they were functional to about 1 million cycles.

The washing test was a little less successful with six of 30 samples experiencing mild damage after 30 washes, but that’s not bad when you consider a single wash cycle would probably kill your average PCB. Oddly enough, Li and Ming also wanted to test how the fabric stood up to bullets, and placed one inside a bulletproof vest. After several shots, the fabric boards continued to work without difficulty.

wearable_computingGarments made of FCBs could also to connect devices that are mounted on different parts of the body, like small solar panels on your back or shoulders to charge your devices. The FBC garment could then route that power into a battery pack or directly to your pocket where your phone charges wirelessly. Another potential use case would be biometric sensors that are built into your clothing instead of a device like a smartwatch or fitness band.

According to the team, the basic FCB design is ready for use. The fabric samples made as part of the study are reportedly rather comfortable and the circuits should be sturdy enough to outlast the fabric component of the garment as well. However, the success of FCBs will likely come down to cost. Right now, the Samsung S Shirt costs $199 with purchase of a smartphone and requires a two-year AT&T contract. Not quite cost-effective just yet!

Augmented_Reality_Contact_lensStill, what this amounts to is the possibility a future where “wearable computing” is taken quite literally. Beyond smart watches, smart rings, smart glasses, and portable computers, there could also be the option for “smart clothes”. In short, people may very well be able to wear their computer on their person and carry it with them wherever they go. Smartphones, contacts or glasses could then be worn to sync up and act as displays.

I can’t help but feel that this is all starting to sound familiar. Yep, echoes of Vinge’s Rainbow’s End right there! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video from New Scientist that gives a first-hand look at the fabric circuit board:


Sources:
extremetech.com, ecouterre.com
, newscientist.com

The Future of Medicine: Engineered Viruses, Nanoparticles and Bio-Absorbable Circuits

medtechThe future that is fast approaching us is one filled with possibilities, many of which were once thought to be the province of science fiction. Between tricorders and other new devices that can detect cancer sooner and at a fraction of the cost, HIV vaccines and cures, health monitoring tattoos and bionic limbs, we could be moving into an age where all known diseases are curable and physical handicaps will be non-existent.

And in the past few months, more stories have emerged with provide hope for millions of people living with diseases, injuries and disabilities. The first came just over three weeks ago from University of California, Berkley, where researchers have been working with an engineered virus which they claim could help cure blindness. As part of a gene therapy program, this treatment has been shown to effectively correct a rare form of inherited blindness.

virus-sight1For the past six years, medical science has been using adeno-associated viruses (AAV) as part of a gene therapy treatment to correct inherited retinal degenerative disease. However, the process has always been seen as invasive, since it involves injected the AAVs directly into a person’s retina with a needle. What’s more, the rpocess has shown itself to be limited, in that the injected virus does not reach all the retinal cells that need repair.

But as Professor David Schaffer, the lead researcher on the project, stated in an interview with Science Translational Medicine:

[D]octors have no choice because none of the gene delivery viruses can travel all the way through the back of the eye to reach the photoreceptors – the light sensitive cells that need the therapeutic gene.

Building on this and many more years of research, Prof David Schaffer and his colleagues developed a new process where they generated around 100 million variants of AAV and then selected five that were effective in penetrating the retina. They then used the best of these, a strain known as 7m8, to transport genes to cure two types of hereditary blindness on a group of mice.

virus-sightIn each case, the engineered virus delivered the corrective gene to all areas of the retina and restored retinal cells nearly to normal. But more importantly, the virus’ ability to penetrate the retina on its own makes the process far less invasive, and will likely be far more cost-effective when adapted to humans. And the process is apparently very convenient:

[W]e have now created a virus that you just inject into the liquid vitreous humor inside the eye and it delivers genes to a very difficult-to-reach population of delicate cells in a way that is surgically non-invasive and safe. It’s a 15-minute procedure, and you can likely go home that day.

Naturally, clinical trials are still needed, but the results are encouraging and Professor Schaffer indicated that his team are busy at work, now collaborating with physicians to identify the patients most likely to benefit from this gene-delivery technique.

nanoparticles_miceNext up, there was the announcement back at the end of May that researchers from North Carolina State and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had found yet another medical use for nanoparticles. In there case, this consisted of combating a major health concern, especially amongst young people today: diabetes.

In a study that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the collaborating teams indicated that their solution of nanoparticles was able to monitor blood sugar levels in a group of mice and released insulin when their sugar levels got too high. Based on the results, the researchers claim that their method will also work for human beings with type 1 diabetes.

image descriptionEach of the nanoparticles have a core of insulin that is contained with a degradable shell. When glucose levels in the blood reach high concentrations spike, the shell dissolves, releasing insulin and lowering the subject’s blood sugar. The degradable nano-network was shown to work in mice where a single injection kept blood glucose levels normal for a minimum of 10 days.

While the exact cause of this kind of diabetes is unknown, the effects certainly are. Patients living with this genetically-acquired form of the disease require several shots of insulin a day to keep their blood sugar levels under control. And even then, blindness, depression and even death can still result. What’s more, if the insulin shots are specifically calculated for the individual in question, side-effects can occur.

???????????????????????????????Hence the genius behind this new method. Not only would it relieve people who have type 1 diabetes from constantly injecting themselves, it would also remove the need to monitor their own blood sugar levels since the nanoparticles would be controlling them automatically.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Zhen Gu, lead author of the study claimed that the technology functions essentially the same as a pancreas. Hence another benefit of the new method, in that it could make pancreatic transplants – which are often necessary for patients with diabetes – unnecessary.

biocircuitsAnd last, but certainly not least, comes from the University of Illinois where John Rogers are developing a series of bio-absorbable electronic circuits that could help us win the war on drug-resistant bacteria. As part of a growing trend of biodegradable, flexible electronic circuits that operate wirelessly, fighting “superbugs” is just one application for this technology, but a very valuable one.

For some time now, bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics has been spreading, threatening to put the clock back 100 years to the time when routine, minor surgery was life-threatening. Some medical experts are warning that otherwise straightforward operations could soon become deadly unless new ways to fend off these infections are found. And though bacteria can evolve ways of evading chemical assaults, they are still vulnerable to direct assault.

electronics_dissolvingThis is how the new bio-absorbable circuits work: by heating up the virus. Each circuit is essentially a miniature electric heater that can be implanted into wounds and powered wirelessly to fry bacteria during healing before dissolving harmlessly into body fluids once their job is done. While this might sound dangerous, keep in mind that it takes only a relatively mild warming to kill bugs without causing discomfort or harm to surrounding tissues.

To fashion the circuits, Rogers and his colleagues used layers of utra-thin wafers and silk, material so thin that they disintegrate in water or body fluids or (in the case of silk) are known to dissolve anyway. For the metal parts, they used extra-thin films of magnesium, which is not only harmless but in fact an essential nutrient. For semiconductors, they used silicon membranes 300 nanometres thick, which also dissolve in water.

In addition to deterring bacteria, Rogers says that implantable, bio-absorbable RF electronics could be used to stimulate nerves for pain relief, and to stimulate bone re-growth, a process long proven to work when electrodes are placed on the skin or directly on the bone. Conceivably they could also be used to precisely control drug release from implanted reservoirs.

In other words, this is just the beginning. When it comes to the future of medicine, just about any barrier that was once considered impassable are suddenly looking quite porous…

Sources: sci-news.com, stm.sciencemag.org, singularityhub.com, bbc.com/future

The Future is Here: Batteries for Stretchable Implants

Stretchable-battery1One of the newest and greatest developments in medical technology of late has been the creation of electronics that can stretch and flex. Increasingly, scientists are developing flexible electronics like video displays and solar panels that could make their way into clothing or even bodies. But of course, some challenges remain, specifically in how to power these devices.

Thus far, researchers have been able to develop batteries that are thin and bendable, flexibility has proven more of a challenge. In addition, no stretchable batteries have thus far offered rechargeability with high the kind of storage capacity that one might expect from the lithium-ion technology now powering many smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices.

flexbatteryHowever, that may be changing thanks to two research scientists – Yonggang Huang from Northwestern University and John A. Rogers University of Illinois. Together, they have unveiled a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be stretched, twisted and bended, and is still capable of powering electronics. What’s more, the power and voltage of this battery are similar to a conventional lithium-ion battery and can be used anywhere, including the inside of the human body.

Whereas previous batteries of its type had a hard time stretching up to 100 percent of their original size, this new design is capable of stretching up to 300 percent. Huang and Rogers have indicated that this will make it ideal for powering implantable electronics that are designed for monitoring brain waves or heart activity. What’s more, it can be recharged wirelessly and has been tested up to 20 cycles of recharging with little loss in capacity.

Stretchable-batteryFor their stretchable electronic circuits, the two developed an array of tiny circuit elements connected by metal wire “pop-up bridges.” Typically, this approach works for circuits but not for a stretchable battery, where components must be packed tightly to produce a powerful enough current. Huang’s design solution is to use metal wire interconnects that are long, wavy lines, filling the small space between battery components.

In a paper published on Feb. 26, 2013 in the online journal Nature Communications, Huang described the process of creating their new design:

“We start with a lot of battery components side by side in a very small space, and we connect them with tightly packed, long wavy lines. These wires provide the flexibility. When we stretch the battery, the wavy interconnecting lines unfurl, much like yarn unspooling. And we can stretch the device a great deal and still have a working battery.”

No telling when the first stretchable electronic implant will be available for commercial use, but now that we have the battery issue worked out, its only a matter of time before hospitals and patient care services are placing them in patients to monitor their health and vitals. Combined with the latest in personal computing and wireless technology, I also imagine everyone will be able to keep a database of their health which they will share with their doctor’s office.

And be sure to check out the video of the new battery in action:

Source: neurogadget.com

The Future is Here: Smart Tattoos!

electronic_skin_patchIn recent years, scientists have been working towards electronics that come in flexible and ultra-thin packages. Back in 2011, this bore fruit as researchers from the University of Illinois unveiled the world’s first health monitoring patch, an ultra-thin device which looked like a temporary tattoo, but packed enough sensors in its flesh to monitor a person’s vitals. As a testament to the rate at which technological developments happen these days, improvements are already being made on the concept and design.

For example, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of California recently announced the creation of what they are calling the “smart tattoo”.  This device is a step up from the previous one, as it contains “ion-selective electrodes” which go beyond monitoring just your vitals. According to the collaborative team, this patch is made up of “sensors that detect the pH or salt levels of the skin, as well minerals like potassium, and even blood oxidation.”

In other words, this patch can monitor athletic performance at a granular level, but without any of the bulk or wiring of older sensors. It also means that for the first time, detailed athletic response testing would no longer be limited to the walls of a sports clinic, but could be done daily by the athlete herself. What’s more, the nature of the design and relative cost are in keeping with a mass production model and mass market appeal.

bloodstreamThis last aspect is an important indicator since one of the hallmarks of technological progress is the ability to create devices which go beyond matters of life and death and are able to address our daily concerns. In addition to proving that the technology is becoming more commonplace, it’s also a sign of growing affordability and availability. With this latest development, it seems that smart tattoos are doing just that.

Another example comes from Sano intelligence, a 2012 health startup that announced that they are in the testing phase of a smart tattoo that reads a wearer’s blood markers. This patch would be especially useful to diabetics, for whom blood monitoring is a constant hassle and often required invasive measures, such as needles. If the patch proves successful, diabetics everywhere would not only be able to forgo finger pricking and needles, but would also be freed of the burden of having to carry around bulky devices.

stretchable-electronicsFinally, there was the news from Cambridge Massachusetts, where another startup company named MC10 announced early in 2012 that they had created a “stretchable electronics” patch that was applicable not only to skin, but to human clothing and even organs. By mounting nanoscale electronics to a flexible, stretchable patch, the company hopes to be able to produce sensors that can monitor any number of health functions, from the more mundane things like heart-rate and hydration, to brain, heart, tissue, and organ function.

What is especially exciting about all of this is not so much the technology involved, but the fact that it is leading to an era where patients will have a far greater degree of control over their own health and monitoring. No longer will we be dependent on clinics and doctors for every single matter relating to our health, from checkups to surgery. Now we can take care of the former ourselves, making our information available to our doctor or specialist as needed, and going in for only serious or life-threatening procedures. This, in addition to leading to a more health-conscious public, could also bode well for medical costs.

Sources: takepart.com, technologreview.com, factcoexist.com