Electronic Products & Technology

Printable sensors: A key technology for health wearables?

By Liam Critchley, senior science communications officer, Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA)   

Electronics Printable Electronics Wearable Technology Editor Pick NIA Printable sensors wearables

The adoption of healthcare monitoring devices that are both flexible and conform to the wearer have gained traction – spurred on by the need for remote care during the COVID-19 pandemic combined with technological advances in sensor accuracy. As a result, wearable sensing and monitoring devices have become more ubiquitous, including telemedicine operations. Used in clinical environments to provide an analysis, much of their potential remains in remote health monitoring.

Flexible materials

These sensing devices typically make use of flexible materials, such as polymers, thin films, 2D materials and other nanomaterials. Health monitoring devices often consist of a flexible material that conforms to the wearer and is integrated with electronic components, including sensors, a power source – be it a battery, solar cell, or some other type of energy harvester like a nanogenerator. Sometimes they are used in communication technologies if it transmits data to a central processing system, and any relevant circuitry.

Building electronic components that are small and flexible enough to be used in wearable technologies is not that straightforward and is why different nanomaterials – especially 2D materials – are often used to create the components because they fit the bill and can be easily integrated.

Source: Getty Images

However, another approach is gathering interest: printing sensors – the most crucial aspects of a monitoring system – directly onto the wearable device. These printed sensors are sometimes made of 2D materials and other nanomaterials, but other materials can also be used as well. The ability to print sensors onto wearable health monitoring devices could pave a way to a much simpler and easier route to commercializing more wearable monitoring devices – especially if conventional, inexpensive, or easy-to-use printing technologies are used to print the sensor.

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Why printed sensors?

While a range of advanced deposition and nano deposition methods exist that can fabricate thin-film sensors on the substrate for wearable devices—often a soft polymer due to their flexibility and conformability – a number of biomedical sensors can be printed using screen printing techniques. Other techniques, such as inkjet and transfer printing, can be used as well, but screen printing is seen as the best option for printing sensors.

Screen printing equipment is widely available, has a relatively low cost, and is easier to use than more advanced deposition methods, so it offers a much more scalable and commercially feasible route for using printed sensors in healthcare monitoring devices. Screen printing can also be used with many materials—from polymer solutions to conductive nanomaterial inks – so it is a versatile platform for printing a number of sensors.

So, why print sensors instead of creating them through other manufacturing routes? Screen printing is a simple, fast, and efficient printing technique that can produce a large number of identical patterns in a single print. For large-scale operations and commercialization potential, screen printing can easily be adapted for mass production at a lower cost than other methods.

From a performance perspective, screen printing provides high-resolution patterning and can print over large areas. The ability of screen printing to deposit material on demand in any given location also helps to reduce waste – especially on large scales – compared to traditional manufacturing methods because it is all done in a single step.

There are, therefore, several manufacturing benefits with using printing methods. Beyond that, a greater design capability exists for health wearables because printing methods enable the production of sensors that are not only very thin but also provide the ability to print on the surface of the device. This approach is much simpler than trying to integrate devices into the material matrix of the wearable. You can also create a more customized sensor because you can print on demand, and the printing process can be changed to make a different sensor much easier than a typical manufacturing line.

In terms of the materials compatible with screen printing, the scope is vast. Depending on the type of sensor being created, a whole host of materials can be used. On the one hand, a range of metals can be made into printable conductive inks to build the sensor. Common metals for wearable health sensors include gold, copper, platinum, nickel, aluminum, and silver. Beyond metals, a range of nanomaterial composites (graphene, carbon nanotubes composites), functional nanomaterial inks, and silver composites have all been used as the active sensing surface in printed health wearable sensors.

The sensors also need a platform to be printed on. This often takes the form of a conductive polymer so that the sensor can better interact with the skin and the other components to provide higher sensitivity and reliability. PEDOT:PSS is the polymer platform that is most widely used for printed sensors, but other polymer materials include polyacetylene, polypyrrol, polyphenylene, poly (p-phenylene vinylene), and polythiophene polyaniline.

 Healthcare monitoring applications

Just as many materials can be used to create printed health sensors, many different types of printable sensors are used in health monitoring devices. Take, for example, strain-based sensors. Strain-based sensors measure a form of movement, and these wearable sensors are used in human-physiological signal monitoring and human-joint motion monitoring approaches.

Another healthcare specialty measures different biomolecules and human signals. Non-strain-based sensors detect the biomolecule of interest directly or by directly measuring a physiological parameter that the patient exhibits. From a molecule-sensing perspective, a number of biomolecules in the blood can be detected, with glucose levels being a common one as well as the presence of sweat on a person’s skin. From a signal detection perspective, printed sensors can now detect respiration and heartbeat levels in a patient and provide remote electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring.

Another class of printed sensors for wearables is sensor arrays. In sensor arrays, multiple sensors work together to detect more complex issues or issues that require analysis from several stimuli angles. Sensor arrays are helpful in monitoring gait during walking, monitoring the sitting posture of wheelchair users, and monitoring the skin.

Finally, there’s been advances in the development of printed temperature sensors for wearable health devices. Thermal sensing is a key area in disease detection because the body suffers thermal stresses when there is a disease present, and the rise in both skin and deep body temperature can be a primary indicator of a serious disease. Using printed temperature sensors, health wearables can detect a range of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular, diabetic, and pulmonological diseases, as well as cancer.

Conclusion

Health monitoring wearables are gaining acceptance as an effective way to remotely measure many health factors of a patient. The most important aspect of these wearables is the sensing system that provides the analysis on the patient. For patients to be willing to wear the health monitoring device over an extended amount of time, the sensors and other components need to flex with the wearable component. While integrating flexible sensors is possible—for example, by using thin nanomaterials—printing sensors on the device’s surface is much easier, requires less material, and is much more scalable.

A variety of printed health wearables are already in existence (commercially and academically. The printing methods discussed offer a route to achieve widespread distribution of health wearables. While many options are available, screen printing is the leading printing technology because it is highly versatile and can be used with many materials to create sensors that monitor different aspects of a person’s health—from heart rate to detecting a chance of a disease, to the different biomolecules in their blood, and many more in between.

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Liam Critchley is senior science communications officer at the Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA) in Europe and has spent the past few years writing for companies, associations and media websites around the globe, including Mouser Electronics.

https://resources.mouser.com/wearables

 

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