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14 October, 2011 - 07:47 By News Desk

Low power electronics for humans, on humans!

Smart Skin. Source: MC 10

Cambridge UK company IDTechEx is majoring on developments with smart skin technology at its upcoming Energy Harvesting & Storage and Wireless Sensor Networks event in Boston.

The development of low power electronics and devices for integration into the type of active lifestyles that are characteristic of modern humans is a vibrant area of research.

Whether the electronics are wearable, epidermal, edible or even implantable, developments are taking place worldwide with new concepts, designs and prototypes that could change everyday life with minimal intrusiveness.

Smart skin is a good example, an "epidermal electronic system", developed with funding by the National Science Foundation and the US Air Force. The device contains micro-circuitry, such as transistors, sensors, transmitters and receivers, that can get wrinkled, are bendable and stretchable, just like real skin is, yet allowing damage-free function of all components.

Envisaged biomedical applications would allow wearers freedom of movement, avoiding the obtrusive, uncomfortable methods, using adhesive tapes and wires to attach devices to people. The main reason for this is that smart skin is only 50 microns thick and light enough to stay attached to real skin without glue or adhesive, through surface forces.

In terms of power consumption, it is so low that no battery will be needed for most applications. The device can use ambient sources of energy to harvest, whether those would be miniaturized solar cells or the movements of its wearer.

MC10, set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is heading the efforts to commercialise the smart skin technology.

Implantable devices

The use of implanted medical devices for long term monitoring of medical conditions presents a challenge in terms of a renewable power source. These devices require a self sufficient power source that does not interact with its surroundings and batteries are impractical due to their need for replacement.

The body represents an excellent source of thermal as well as mechanical energy. Thermal gradients are present on the surface of the skin and may be used for external skin mounted sensors. Vibrational energy scavenging is also a viable source of renewable energy and devices powered by the human heartbeat have been created. Electricity to power implanted medical devices can be harvested from the pulse of a blood vessel, a gentle breeze, or the motion from walking.

Technology developments

David Icke, CEO of MC10 will be discussing smart skin developments at the IDTechEx event. Also talking at the event is Dr Elizabeth K Reilly of Exponent Engineering and Scientific Consulting, who will be discussing energy scavenging and battery power for long term medical monitoring.

Dr Reilly's past research at the University of California, Berkeley focused on the development of microscale energy scavenging devices while Exponent provide solutions to solve a variety of challenges associated with device design, performance, and interaction with their environment including cardiovascular, neurovascular, peripheral endovascular, pulmonary, tracheal-bronchial, biliary and renal (CVNP) implantable devices.

And exhibiting at the show is Zarlink Semiconductor which delivers mixed-signal chip technologies for communication and medical applications and ultra low-power radios enabling new wireless medical devices and therapies.

Zarlink is involved in the TIPS (Thin Interconnect Package Stack) Project which concentrates on the creation of complex electronics in ultra-thin stacked packages with a maximum layer thickness of 0.10 mm.

Zarlink's ultra-low power RF system-on-chip solution allows the integration of wireless functionality into advanced sensor and date streaming applications without impacting battery life with applications including wireless implants and ingestible low-power sensors.

• For more information on the Novmber 15 & 16 conference and exhibition in Boston visit: www.IDTechEx.com/Boston or email event manager, Corinne Jennings at c.jennings [at] IDTechEx.com

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