Assistant Professor, Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
“If we can put electronics on humans it can give us a very different channel of communication with the world.” —Nanshu Lu
Wearables and smart devices are becoming the new norm as engineers make electronics smaller and more easily integrated into our lives. But what about electronics becoming a part of our own skin?
“The idea is biointegrated. It is different than wearable,” says Nanshu Lu, an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering and one of the minds behind the design of the biointegrated electronic tattoo. “We hope the electronics can become integrated with the body, and eventually we hope some day a part of the body.”
The concept of electronic skin sounds like science fiction, but the reality is much closer than you might think. Lu and her colleagues have created an electronic “tattoo.” These soft electronics are as thin as a temporary tattoo and flexible enough to conform to the movement and texture of the body. The goal of this level of seamlessness is to tap into the physical, electrical and chemical signals emitted by our organs. Being able to communicate with the body on such an intimate scale in real time could revolutionize industries from health care to gaming.
Recently Lu’s research team invented a “cut-and-paste” method for producing electronic tattoos, reducing the production process from weeks to less than an hour. We talked to Lu about her motivations and predictions about the future of biointegrated electronics.
Why did your research in soft electronics move toward biointegrated materials?
I was always curious about our body. How is it functional? How do we communicate with the rest of the world instead of just having voices? I realized that if we could put electronics on humans it could give us a very different channel of communication with the world.
What is an electronic tattoo? Is it actually part of the skin?
It is like a secondary skin on your skin’s surface, or a patch on the heart or the lung. So soft, so thin that it is mechanically imperceptible to the wearer. It’s intimately integrated with the body and eventually, we hope, someday a part of the body.
Have you used these patches or tattoos successfully on living organs?
Yes. We have achieved that on the brain, on the heart and on the inside of the heart. When the surgeon is doing open-heart surgery it is very difficult to monitor the heart in three dimensions. You can have probes here and there, but not really the whole. We use the soft electronics and make them into a functional sock that goes onto the heart and gives a three-dimensional, full-field mapping of the heart’s functionality. It tells us immediately about the heart’s electrophysiological signal, mechanical signal, pH, things like that. It is 360 degrees of information.
Are there nonmedical uses for this technology?
When I speak different words, the muscle signals from my neck look very different. There are algorithms that can recognize the pattern and try to figure out what you are saying — not through your voice but through your muscle movement. That gives you a whole new method of communication. It could be a new way for covert communication in a noisy environment or on the battlefield where you cannot make sound, or it could also be used for a virtual reality interaction.
How much information is gathered from these biointegrated materials?
It’s an enormous amount of data. No one has really ever had that experience of all vital signs continuously monitored on one human body. It is huge data. Once you can simultaneously collect, let’s say, heartbeat, respiration, temperature, hydration — that kind of information — now think how you can use them? You can think of them individually or in a cross-analysis pattern.
What are the benefits of your new “cut-and-paste” method?
The manufacturing time and cost have dropped by a hundred fold. Now we can go from idea to device in less than one hour. It’s the first time that tattoo electronics could be made in such a simple, low-cost, bench-top, green manufacturing process.
It motivates me that I can use this for health monitoring not just in big cities, but for people in the third world who don’t have access to a lot of medical care. Now they have a low cost way of monitoring their health. And one day we may be able to get treatment to them with this kind of bioelectronics.
How does this open doors for other inventors?
After we published the “Cut and Paste” paper we got a lot of media interest. We were interviewed by the Smithsonian, NPR, Science Daily. A lot of people saw the news and tracked to our paper, read it and thought, “Wow that is so simple!” They immediately thought, “We have our own ideas, and we think we can do even better than you.” I say, “Be my guest!” That is the whole purpose of this invention. To enable people who have ideas, who have passion, who have creativity in this wearable electronics field to implement their own ideas.
“That is why I love this work. We are always trying to create platform technologies. So that we can enable future research or technology development, not just for our group, but for the whole scientific field.”
What do you see as the future for this technology 10 years from now?
We still need batteries, bluetooth, processors, a flexible circuit board — they are still pretty bulky and power consuming. We need collaborators. My close collaborator at UT, Professor Nan Sun, is doing integrated circuit design. He is working very hard to integrate all the components into one single chip that can go onto the patch, wirelessly charge and transmit data.
What role do innovation and creativity play in your research?
We are integrators. In the 21st century, innovations can be made by making connections between different subjects and technologies. That is why I have built a highly multidisciplinary group. I tell my students,”Please do not confine yourself. Get inspired from each other, from other people’s innovations and from nature.” Our job is to innovate, and that’s a great privilege that we really appreciate.