New Rapid Prototyping Technique for 'Drawing' Electrodes

Researchers have developed a new method to rapidly prototype electrodes that can be used in next-generation bio-sensing devices.

Medical devices used for diagnostics and other types of healthcare analysis are getting smaller and yet demand more complex functionality, requiring their components to have the same characteristics. To help achieve these design goals, researchers at Imperial College of London have developed a new rapid prototyping method that makes it easier and less expensive to fabricate tiny electrodes with intricate patterns, they said in an Imperial College news release.

prototype printing
This Iron Man-shaped electrode was printed using a new technique developed by researchers at the Imperial College of London. The method can be used to rapidly prototype electrodes that can be used in next-generation bio-sensing devices for medical applications. (Image source: Imperial College of London)

Printing Difficult Patterns

A team led by Professor Ali Salehi-Reyhani from the college’s Department of Chemistry developed the technique, which allows for the design of electrode patterns on computers before printing them using a laser-cutting printer. Microfluidic techniques then are used to fill the cavities of the printed patterns with metal.

“In our metallization approach, the silver-based plating reagent is introduced into the channels of a microfluidic device using a simple degassing technique and is capable of achieving electrode geometries that are inaccessible to other fluid-introduction methods,” Salehi-Reyhani told Design News. “We are able to produce difficult to pattern ‘dead end’ or discontinuous microelectrode features with ease.”

In this way, researchers can print several sheets of electrodes—each with a slightly different design, which allows for testing in rapid succession to find the best design, he said.

Prototyping in Just Days

Before this method was developed, designs typically had to be sent away to be manufactured, taking weeks or even months to arrive at the best design, said Salehi-Reyhani. The new technique reduces this process to a matter of days.

“Prototyping at the bench, we think, is an important step in alleviating the need for centralized facilities for their fabrication,” he told Design News. “Simplifying the production of microelectrodes to a benchtop technique is a powerful tool for researchers wishing to incorporate them into their devices but who do not have access to such facilities. Or, indeed, to those wishing to minimize the time to fabricate their devices and improve their designs.”

The team’s specific goal in this particular research is to develop chips to isolate and analyze rare cancer cells in the blood that are responsible for the spread of the disease throughout the body, he explained. “In this work, we showed how devices incorporating microelectrodes produced with this new method could analyze single cancer cells,” Salehi-Reyhani told Design News.

Wearable Devices and Medical Uses

He and his team hope this method will allow miniature sensing devices like the device demonstrated to be developed more quickly, benefiting from the “ecosystem of hackers getting hands-on with problems and solutions in healthcare,” Salehi-Reyhani said.

Indeed, researchers said the technique could be used to speed the development of flexible wearable devices, such as skin patches that monitor health signals and devices. It also could be used to develop devices that can quickly distinguish between viral and bacterial infections with just a drop of blood that could be used in hospitals or by general practitioners. The team published a paper on its work in the journal Scientific Reports.

The method already has been adopted by the team at fabriCELL, a center of excellence in artificial cell science run by Imperial College London and King’s College London. Scientists there are using the technique to prototype devices for manipulating and analyzing cells.

Researchers plan to continue their work in a few ways—one of which is to observe how others use their method, Salehi-Reyhani said. “In the broader sense of democratizing science, this would be appealing to hobbyists that would be able to develop similarly capable systems incorporating microelectrodes,” he said.  The team also is considering how to develop a similar easy-to-use rapid prototyping method for wearable diagnostics.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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