“Stretchable electronics” is an umbrella term that refers to a whole host of emerging electronic materials, components, and devices that exhibit some degree of mechanical stretchability. They are sometimes called “elastic” or “flexible” electronics, as well. According to the University of Texas Robotics Department, research on flexible electronics began nearly 20 years ago, but advances are now emerging in the world of technology, energy, and health. These sensory devices can be integrated directly onto the human body as a patch or integrated into garments, which requires the devices to be very thin and flexible.
Stretchable electronics are one of the key technologies riding the massive sensor wave in the tech field. These devices are designed to provide an adaptable interface between traditionally rigid electronic components and the flexible skin of human bodies. These extremely malleable new systems are enabling sensors, integrated circuits, and wireless components to power devices capable of converting biological processes into digital signals and data sources.
Applications in Health
Wearables that interact seamlessly with the human body allow diseases or health problems to be detected before they spread or get worse. Thanks to stretchable electronics the device is noninvasive. Stretchable devices designed to be worn near the throat and being developed in the engineering labs of Northwestern University are in development. According to John A. Rogers, a professor at Northwestern, this sensor is the latest in the constantly growing portfolio of stretchable technology.
Rogers’ sensors stick directly to the skin, moving with the body and providing detailed health metrics including heart function, muscle activity and quality of sleep. “Stretchable electronics allow us to see what is going on inside patients’ bodies at a level traditional wearables simply cannot achieve,” Rogers said. “The key is to make them as integrated as possible with the human body.” Stretchable electronics also permit scientists to create soft robots (robots made of flexible material). According to Nature, these soft robots can be used to implement less invasive surgeries and procedures in hospitals. When it comes to surgeries of the brain, every millimeter is important, and such robots may be more precise than a human.
Professor Seokheun Choi has developed a stretchy, textile-based, bacteria-powered bio-battery that could one day be used to power wearable devices. In demonstrations, the battery was shown to be able to exhibit stable electricity-generating capabilities even after repeated stretching and twisting cycles. The term “bacteria-powered” means that natural bodily secretions – specifically sweat could power the battery. While this specific stretchable tech won’t be rivaling your iPhone in terms of sheer battery power anytime soon, it could very much pave the way for wearables and Internet of Things devices that would be able to gather sensor data from your body and then transmit it to a separate device.
The electronics and technology industry is changing and growing rapidly. The quality of human health and well-being is a key growth area for tech. Flexible and stretchable electronics may help address some of the critical issues facing medicine today.