NCATS-Supported Research Shows Promise for Stretchable, Wearable Electronics

A 3-D stretchable electronics device next to a U.S. dollar coin. (University of California, San Diego Photo/Zhenlong Huang)

A 3-D stretchable electronics device next to a U.S. dollar coin. (University of California, San Diego Photo/Zhenlong Huang)

Electronics that are soft and stretchable are a dream for biomedical researchers and health care professionals. These devices could be used as bandage-like wearable sensors to measure heart signals, track eye movements or control a robotic limb. But until now, a major technological hurdle has blocked progress: how to build stretchable electronics in 3-D so that they can perform more functions without taking up a lot of space. Part of what makes modern electronics so powerful is that they can house dozens of layers of circuits on a small area, with thousands of tiny, intricate connections between the layers.

Now researchers at the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute (CTRI), an NCATS Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program hub at the University of California, San Diego, have found a way to make stretchable electronics in 3-D. The team used lasers to burn precise holes in the stacked circuit layers, then they filled the holes with materials that conduct electrical signals. As a proof of concept, the researchers created a prototype multifunctional, stretchable device worn on the skin to monitor electrical signals in the body, such as signals from the heart or brain. The work is published in the Aug. 13, 2018, issue of Nature Electronics.

The project was supported through CTRI’s Galvanizing Engineering in Medicine (GEM) program, which is designed to create collaborations between engineers and physicians. Through GEM, clinicians propose specific clinical problems that could be addressed with a device or software solution. Engineers then compete for funding by proposing the best solutions to the highest-ranked clinical problems. GEM is an example of how CTSA Program hubs catalyze innovation through multidisciplinary teamwork.

Read more about the development of 3-D stretchable electronics.

Posted September 2018