Op-Ed: Game changer — Wearable bio sensors printed on skin

Posted Oct 17, 2020 by Paul Wallis
Old-style skin sensors are cumbersome, tough on patients and medical staff, high maintenance, and expensive. New printable bio sensors from Penn State University and Harbin Institute of Technology are about to change the game forever.
This is the future of bio sensors  in its first incarnation as printable tech.
This is the future of bio sensors, in its first incarnation as printable tech.
Ling Zhang, Penn State/Cheng Lab and Harbin Institute of Technology
The idea of wearable sensors has been around for a very long time. Most of the clunky stuff you see is the result of that idea. The core new tech to address these problems is now a pretty astonishing range of support tech from supercapacitors to materials science. It's now hitting the commercial markets in high-value forms. You can expect to see an ever-increasing flow of commercial and sometimes breathlessly enthusiastic technical information as the tech gets into the market.Turning the sensors into low-maintenance, easy to apply practical options is the point of the new sensors.
Technically, these sensors were a tough ask. To print metal on skin has a few obvious issues, notably the fact that the temperatures of printed metal are very high, like 300C, quite enough to cause serious burns. Using a process called “sintering”, it’s possible to insulate the skin with an intermediate layer between the print and the skin and deliver the sensors where required.
The Penn State/ Harbin Institute printed sensors look like exactly what they are: Printed circuits with added grunt. This is a descendant of older tech with a lot of major new applications. It’s efficient, effective, and can be used for any number of other applications, like research.
You'll note that the sensors in the picture are printed on a hand. The human hand is one of the most uncooperative places to put any kind of anything, let alone a sensor. This is "proof of concept" in a very unambiguous form.
This type of sensor can be adapted, too. Consider a research program into allergies, for example. The standard method for testing is a skin test. Add sensors…? You get a whole range of metrics, in very near real-time, to define reactions. This is also a “wearable data source” for such tests.
These sensors are recyclable and easily removed, another major positive. The overall impression is of a very flexible approach to biometrics and improved data acquisition.
Penn State has made a major practical breakthrough with this tech. The method has literally endless uses, and is clearly able to evolve. It’ll be fascinating to watch the new tech develop.