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Smaller, smarter and powered by the human body – the future of wearable technology

2018-04-12

Wearable devices which can monitor a variety of physiological measurements are set to dramatically improve the control of chronic health conditions as well as alleviate stress on clinics and medical professionals.

Elena Gonzalez Arribas

A Malmö University researcher has investigated and proved how such devices could potentially be smaller and more discreet by using biological rather than conventional power sources. 

Elena González Arribas will be defending her research published in the thesis, Flexible and transparent biological power sources based on nanostructured electrodes. The paper investigates how various enzymes can be used to act as catalysts to power low voltage devices.

The next generation of wearable technology?

The findings could pave the way for future technologies which could, in the example used in González’s research, help diabetics monitor glucose levels in tear fluid via a contact lens. Using the biological power source, this data could in turn be transmitted to an external device, such as a smart phone.

“I want to highlight that you can use different power sources from the conventional ones which rely on expensive precious metal catalysts or operate on fossil fuels. Batteries, for example, can produce much higher power output, but they have drawbacks; they have higher limits of miniaturisation — by the very nature of their components they cannot be as small as biologically powered devices.”

Elena Gonzalez Arribas in the lab

Core to González’s research was finding a compromise between substrates (the interfaces between the body and the biocatalysts layer) which was not only flexible and transparent, but also one which could store charge, allowing the device to work in pulses rather than continuously.

“If a device can store power it can also function as a capacitor. If you can combine these two features you can make your biological power sources work in pulse mode — If this was achieved, the devices would be more energy efficient. The biological power sources convert chemical energy into electrical energy by oxidizing glucose and reducing oxygen under conditions similar to those present in human tear fluid." 

Not just for monitoring illness

"People are increasingly interested in monitoring their own bodies for preventative reasons, it is not just someone who is ill who might benefit from such technology. Quality of sleep, heart rate and oxygen levels are all things which can be monitored. All these wearable devices could potentially measure these and instead of having a watch-like device, the technology could be as discreet as something like a tattoo which could have implanted in it both a sensor and a biological power source."

González was keen to stress that such power source were not designed to replace conventional sources, but rather prove an alternative existed for technology which could function off such little power.

“We are not aiming to use these power sources in the field that conventional power sources can cover, say for example pacemakers. Such biological power sources will only be able to fuel low voltage devices,” she explained.

Text: Adrian Grist

Last updated by Maya Acharya