Though the adoption of wearable technology is on the rise, there is still much room for improvement for these types of devices as 2018 begins, with better components, form factors, and materials all the subject of research.
A team at Florida A&M University-Florida State University (FAMU-FSU) is a part of this effort, revealing a new type of printed, carbon-based motion sensor that researchers said could spur the future of ubiquitous, fully integrated, and affordable wearable technology.
The team from FSU’s High-Performance Materials Institute—working with scientists from Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in France—has developed the sensors using bukypaper—ultra-thin, flexible sheets of pure, durable carbon nanotubes. Moreover, they fabricated the sensors using common inkjet printer technology, making them affordable to manufacture.
Current standard sensors for use with wearable technology have limitations. They are often bulky, technologically unsophisticated, expensive to mass produce, or lack the flexibility demanded to monitor human movements and other vital signs.
Researchers from Florida A&M University-Florida State University (FAMU-FSU) have developed a class of printed, carbon-based motion sensors that they said are ideal to form the basis for ubiquitous, fully integrated, and affordable wearable technology. (Source: FAMU-FSU)
The carbon-based sensors built by the team, however, represent a significant leap forward for this type of technology, solving these key issues, said Richard Liang, director of the High-Performance Materials Institute and professor at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.
“For sensor technology, you need it to be flexible, you need it to be affordable, and you need it to be scalable,” he said. “This new technology is versatile and the sensors are affordable to print. It’s a big innovation that presents many possibilities down the road.”
The sensor is comprised of a strip of seven micron-thin buckypaper with silver ink electrodes printed from a common, commercially available ink-jet printer. The result combines the sensitivity of semi-conductor sensors with the flexibility of metallic sensors, researchers said.
Sensors are measured by what’s called “gauge factor,” which indicates how much resistance value changes as a material is strained or bent, researchers said. The carbon-based sensors have gauge factors up to eight times higher than commercial sensors and 75 percent higher than many other carbon nanotube sensors, they reported.
The team published a paper on their work in the journal Materials & Design.
Researchers already have identified a number of applications for the sensors. Integration into bed sheets to monitor sleep quality, shoes to track step count and posture, or workout clothes to measure intensity of exercise are just a few they envision for their devices.
Wearable technology isn’t the only possible use for the sensors, which also could be used in soft robotics to design highly responsive, self-correcting artificial muscles, or in Internet of Things (IoT) devices for digitally connected furniture, appliances, and the like, researchers said.
“Most projects don’t have this many possible applications,” said doctoral candidate Joshua DeGraff, the lead author of the paper on the research. “This material could be used in structural health monitoring, wearable technology, and everything in between.”
The team plans to continue to improve the sensors to make them even thinner for optimal integration into comfortable and non-restrictive clothing, as well as perform more tests to ensure they are better able to conform to wearer’s body movements.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.