A golden age for sensors (Day 49)

Monash's new sensor has great potential for monitoring people's health anytime and anywhere.

Monash’s new sensor has great potential for monitoring people’s health anytime and anywhere.

Healthcare policy ebbs and flows on a regular basis, especially in countries where the state provides tax-payer funded services like here in the UK.

However, although medicines, equipment, communication and facilities have all generally improved over time, the basic management of healthcare services and the business models for delivering them often seem in a state of constant flux.

A good example is where healthcare is best provided – in homes, communities or large centralised hospitals. Generally, I think it is a combination of all of these, but there has been a trend over the past few decades to more community- and home-based services, especially for the elderly.

One of the big challenges for this approach is how to monitor health remotely. So I was interested in a story recently from Monash University in Australia.

Monash has developed a new sensor with great potential for monitoring people’s health anytime and anywhere. The sensor is made by sandwiching ultrathin gold nanowire-impregnated tissue paper between two polymer sheets.

Wenlong Cheng, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Monash University, who helped to develop the sensor, said: “The sensors are flexible, yet robust and our testing showed they could be used for checking such things as blood pressure, blood pulse and heartbeat. These results have particular implications for future ‘at-home’ diagnostic tools for elderly or disabled people.”

“We chose the ultrathin gold nanowires because they are mechanically flexible and have good conductivity, yet are very robust which makes them highly suitable for wearable devices,” Dr Cheng said.

The nanowire used in the sensor is about two nanometres thick – a nanometre is one billionth of a metre – and is the thinnest gold wire produced.

man and his prosthetic legThe sensor’s robust flexibility means it could be worn as a diagnostic device, for example to detect blood pressure or pulse in real time and under various conditions, including during exercise or sleep. The sensor can also be used for prosthetic skin and limbs and has potential use in a range of other applications, including detecting acoustic vibrations and in flexible displays that could supersede hard tablet or phone touch screens that are subject to cracking.

The sensor has the added advantage over current versions that it does not need expensive equipment or costly cleanroom conditions to produce. And unlike current pressure sensors, which rely on brittle semiconductor material, the new sensor can be bent or twisted without cracking.

Dr Cheng said an exciting aspect was that while the team had only produced a patch-size sensor, the fabrication process could easily be replicated on a much larger scale.

As we all live longer, and there are more people to care for, unless we build more and bigger hospitals – at great expense – it seems reasonable that more care will be delivered closer to home. Small, but significant breakthroughs such as Monash’s new sensor, will make care at home more practical and safer for everyone.