Bionic limbs research may spark new hi-tech cluster
A scientist, recruited by Cambridge University from Princeton in the US could become the ‘mother’ of a brand new technology capability for the Cambridge cluster – based around her revolutionary ‘elastic electronics’ research.
Dr Stephanie Lacour, who is based at the University’s department of materials science, is a world-leader in a new field of electronics that allows the development of electronic devices that can be stretched repeatedly by up to 100 per cent – or twice their size – and remain fully-functional.
The technology opens up the possibility of electronic skins for the wings of space and aircraft which can pinpoint structural defects well before they become dangerous, truly wearable fabric electronics and the integration of displays virtually anywhere.
But Dr Lacour has come to Cambridge to investigate the biomedical applications of the technology developed at Princeton with the aim of developing so-called neuro-prosthetics.
“I’m particularly interested in interfacing the human body with electronic components,” she said.
“What I really want to do is to make a complete prosthetic or artificial skin that could be connected to the nervous system of the patient. The aim is to develop prosthetic skin, which sits on a prosthetic limb, allowing the patient to control it naturally.”
The ultimate goal is to develop ‘bionic’ limbs, ported directly to the central nervous system, potentially making the science fiction popularised by Seventies TV series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ a reality.
Already a winner of MIT Technology Review’s young innovator award, Dr Lacour aims to follow in the footsteps of dontrepreneurs like Prof Henning Sirringhaus, co-founder of Plastic Logic and Sir Richard Friend, who had a major hand in both Plastic Logic and Cambridge Display Technology.
She plans to take a hands-on role in commercialising the technology and predicts that the Cambridge team she heads up may be in a position to spin-out the UK’s first elastic electronics in two years.
A venture with colleagues at Princeton and Columbia Universities, may be in the offing before then.
Dr Lacour said: “The component that I was missing in Princeton was the means by which to achieve neuroprosthesis and that’s the core of the work I’m doing here in Cambridge.
“I became very interested in the bio-applications of my work and Cambridge presented a massive opportunity for me to investigate them. The group I’m working with here is very multi-disciplinary.
“I’m working with medical doctors, engineers and material scientists. The advantage is that we can work on something on the materials science side and then implement it directly onto bioassays.”
Dr Lacour’s work is based on three main elements: A very flexible, rubber-like substrate; tiny islands containing all the electronic components; and corrugated strands of metal, only a few nanometeres thick, which allow electrical conduction between the islands.
“I’ve discovered that by depositing very thin metal strands onto rubbery substrates, we can make completely stretchable metalisation,” Dr Lacour explained.
“The metal skin behaves mechanically very similar to the rubber but maintains electrical conduction. We can use that to bridge the islands of devices.”
A collaboration between Princeton and Columbia Universities gives an idea of the extent to which she is operating at the cutting edge. The group is looking at ways to study brain trauma by using stretchable electrodes to record brain activity when brain tissue is violently stretched.
It may be a number of years before the technology Dr Lacour is working on gets anywhere near market, although she is keen to get involved in the active commercialisation.
She said: “We need to push the technology further before venture capitalists and industry are ready to back a venture and I think that will take a couple of years.
“So far we have demonstrated an electronic skin with two components. When we are able to show a complete array of 25 or 100 devices on one skin, I think people will get even more excited than they are at the moment.”