Novel Thin-Film for Wearable Sensors Bends as a Means of Tracking the Acetone Released by Your Skin

Currently in the materials-test phase, this project could allow long-term health tracking without needing its user to sweat.

Researchers at the Ohio State University have come up with a new wearable sensor, which skips the usual sweat-sampling technique in favor of instead tracking gases that come off the skin itself — providing the ability to monitor heath from low-sweat body regions.

"Discerning health issues through the skin is really the ultimate frontier," says study co-author Pelagia-Iren Gouma, professor of materials science and engineering at the University and lead of its Smart Connected Health project. "We are developing a new generation of skin sensors, and it will really be the new norm."

Like existing skin-based wearable sensors, the device the team is working on is designed to passively monitor the user's health. A traditional approach for this, already used both in the lab and commercially, is to process sweat samples for everything from hydration levels to stress exposure — but that comes with the difficulty of finding enough sweat to sample.

What the team has developed, by contrast, doesn't require sweat at all; instead, it monitors gases released from the skin, and as a result can work whether the wearer is sweating or not.

Initial testing on the approach centers around the detection and measurement of acetone, concentrations of which have previously been linked to everything from metabolic rate to blood sugar levels — and that, the researchers claim, could have potential for revealing even more about the body's inner workings over time.

"This is an area of research that hasn’t been nearly as well developed yet," explains lead author Anthony Annerino, "because we're just now producing the technology to measure lower concentrations of these gases with high selectivity."

The team has yet to design a wearable device which can be used for this purpose, but has already discovered a potential solution: a material made from plant cellulose and electroactive polymers, which bends depending on the amount of acetone in its environment and that can be tracked and quantified using a computer vision system.

“The project still has a couple of years to go," Gouma admits. "But in six months, we should have proof of concept and in a year, we’d like to have it tested in people."

The team's work has been published under open-access terms in the journal PLOS One.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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