Flexible, wearable electronics are making their way into everyday use, and their full potential is still to be realized. Soon, this technology could be used for precision medical sensors attached to the skin, designed to perform health monitoring and diagnosis. It would be like having a high-tech medical center at your instant beck and call.
Such a skin-like device is being developed in a project between the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME). Leading the project is Sihong Wang, assistant professor in UChicago PME with a joint appointment in Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology division.
Worn routinely, future wearable electronics could potentially detect possible emerging health problems — such as heart disease, cancer or multiple sclerosis — even before obvious symptoms appear. The device could also do a personalized analysis of the tracked health data while minimizing the need for its wireless transmission. “The diagnosis for the same health measurements could differ depending on the person’s age, medical history and other factors,” Wang said. “Such a diagnosis, with health information being continuously gathered over an extended period, is very data intensive.”
“While still requiring further development on several fronts, our device could be a game changer in which everyone can get their health status in a much more effective and frequent way.” — Sihong Wang, assistant professor in UChicago’s PME with joint appointment in Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology division
Such a device would need to collect and process a vast amount of data, well above what even the best smartwatches can do today. And it would have to do this data crunching with very low power consumption in a very tiny space.
To address that need, the team called upon neuromorphic computing. This AI technology mimics operation of the brain by training on past data sets and learning from experience. Its advantages include compatibility with stretchable material, lower energy consumption and faster speed than other types of AI.
The other major challenge the team faced was integrating the electronics into a skin-like stretchable material. The key material in any electronic device is a semiconductor. In current rigid electronics used in cell phones and computers, this is normally a solid silicon chip. Stretchable electronics require that the semiconductor be a highly flexible material that is still able to conduct electricity.
The team’s skin-like neuromorphic “chip” consists of a thin film of a plastic semiconductor combined with stretchable gold nanowire electrodes. Even when stretched to twice its normal size, their device functioned as planned without formation of any cracks.
As one test, the team built an AI device and trained it to distinguish healthy electrocardiogram (ECG) signals from four different signals indicating health problems. After training, the device was more than 95% effective at correctly identifying the ECG signals.
The plastic semiconductor also underwent analysis on beamline 8-ID-E at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility at Argonne. Exposure to an intense X-ray beam revealed how the molecules that make up the skin-like device material reorganize upon doubling in length. These results provided molecular level information to better understand the material properties.
“The planned upgrade of the APS will increase the brightness of its X-ray beams by up to 500 times,” said Joe Strzalka, an Argonne physicist. “We look forward to studying the device material under its regular operating conditions, interacting with charged particles and changing electrical potential in its environment. Instead of a snapshot, we’ll have more of a movie of the structural response of the material at the molecular level.” The greater beamline brightness and better detectors will make it possible to measure how soft or hard the material becomes in response to environmental influences.
“While still requiring further development on several fronts, our device could one day be a game changer in which everyone can get their health status in a much more effective and frequent way,” added Wang.
In addition to Wang and Strzalka, Argonne team members contributing to this pivotal research include Zixuan Zhao, Fangfang Xia, Rick Stevens and Jie Xu. UChicago PME contributors include Shilei Dai, Yahao Dai, Yang Li, Youdi Liu, Ping Cheng, Songsong Li, Nan Li, Qi Su, Shinya Wai, Wei Liu and Cheng Zhang. Also contributing to this project were researchers from Tongji University (Jia Huang) and the University of Southern California (Ruoyu Zhao and J. Joshua Yang).
This work was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and a start-up fund from the University of Chicago.
About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://science.osti.gov/User-Facilities/User-Facilities-at-a-Glance.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.