Biocompatible Tech, the future of skin-like electronics

02/09/2022, por Angel

Biocompatible Tech, the future of skin-like electronics

Jie Xu

Scientist specialized in AI, Nanoscience, Intelligent sensing and soft electronic materials


Empodera Impact Stories interviewed Dr. Jie Xu, who currently develop her research as an Assistant Scientist at Argonne National laboratory since 2018. Her research focuses on developing electronic materials for future flexible electronics and energy devices. She is also developing a self-driving platform Polybot, which combines artificial intelligence and automation technologies, to our next generation laboratory to accelerate the discovery of electronic materials. She received her PhD degree in chemistry from Nanjing University, with her research focusing on understanding molecular packing structures and dynamic behavior in nanoconfined soft matter. Subsequent postdoctoral training at Stanford University applied her background in polymer physics to the emerging field of skin-like electronics, with the development of a new class of polymer-based stretchable electronic material and the realization of integrated, intrinsically stretchable transistors and circuits. She received the Materials Research Society Postdoctoral Award and is named to the MIT Technology Review’s list of Innovators Under 35 and the Newsweek list of America’s Greatest Disruptors as a budding disruptor.

 

Hi Jie, when did your passion in the intersection of science and technology get started?

My passion in such intersection started during the later period of my PhD research. At the early period of my PhD study, my research mainly focused on fundamental science, i.e., understandings the molecular packing structures and dynamic behaviour in nanoconfined soft matter. At that time, people observed that materials behave differently when you go ultra-small, comparing to the properties that they are supposed to be in the bulk state. Researchers, including me, were trying to find the fundamental origins of the changed physical and chemical properties of matter at the nano scale. 

With the accumulated fundamental knowledge about this nanoconfinement effect, I couldn’t stop thinking how we could take advantage from this unique phenomenon for good, like enabling new capabilities in materials for innovative technologies. So, I started to explore how to use the science for making technologies.

 

How do you imagine the next generation of electronics and how will transform people’s lives?

Today’s electronics are rigid, brittle, relied on many critical materials and hard to be degraded or recycled. I envision a future where the electronics can merge into what we wear and what we attach to our bodies or what we implant inside our bodies to better communicate with the world, monitor our health, treat our disease, or even enhance our capabilities. Also, the future electronics will be made in a more sustainable way to reduce the reliance on the critical materials and cut down on electronic waste.

In the short term, these materials and manufacturing inventions can make flexible displays and skin-worn medical sensors much more practical and easier to make. the Skin-like materials could also aid in the design of prosthetics with functional skin-like outer coverings.

 

“In the short term, these materials and manufacturing inventions can make flexible displays and skin-worn medical sensors much more practical and easier to make.”

 

 

From your base at Argonne National Laboratory you are developing pioneering flexible, skin-like electronics. It looks like science fiction right now but, can It even be biocompatible, like our tissue or skin?

Yes, it could be biocompatible by leverage the characteristics of chemical pluripotency and viscoelastic properties of electronic polymers. Actually, many research are ongoing to develop biocompatible and soft electronics for real applications.

Skin-like electronics that can adhere seamlessly to human skin or within the body are highly desirable for applications such as health monitoring, medical treatment, medical implants and biological studies, and for technologies that include human– machine interfaces, soft robotics and augmented reality. Rendering such electronics soft and stretchable—like human skin—would make them more comfortable to wear, and, through increased contact area, would greatly enhance the fidelity of signals acquired from the skin.

 

“We envision a future where the electronics are merged into what we wear and what we attach to our bodies or what we implant inside our bodies”

 

 

Electronics and biology seem like opposites. How you and your team is change that perception. What are your achievements so far?

Today’s Si-based electronics are rigid and brittle. We envision a future where the electronics are merged into what we wear and what we attach to our bodies or what we implant inside our bodies. The main challenge here is developing stretchable skin-like electrical materials, especially the semiconducting materials.  Polymers are promising candidate because of their viscoelastic nature. But, high performance semiconductive polymers usually show low stretchability. 

From my research, we introduce nanoscience here to change the mechanical property of these semiconductive polymers without changing the chemical composition or structure. This was inspired by my PhD fundamental research on nanoconfinement effect. From my previous research, I knew that polymers can be softer if we make them into nanoscale. So, by making these polymers into nanofibril structure, we can make highly stretchable semiconductive materials and unitize their materials to realize integrated, intrinsically stretchable transistors and circuits for skin electronics.

 

 

“We envision that the continued development of such soft and stretchable pressure sensors will lead to the arrival of commercial products that can form highly conformable e-skin on prosthetic hand and give highly accurate sensing”

 

Assisting devices to increase mobility or support weakened limbs is one of the fields that this technology can bring better solutions. How about fingertips for a prosthetic hand that give sense of touch? Are there any prototypes yet?

To Currently, there have been some miniaturized pressure sensors that can be attached to the fingertips of prosthetic hands to provide the sense of touch. However, the commercial ones all lack skin-like softness and stretchability. This is preventing the realization of such touch sensation on prosthetic hands with similar mechanical properties to real hands. In the academic research field, the past few years have witnessed the rapid progress in the development of soft pressure sensors that can be used for soft prosthetic hand.

Recently, we have developed a new type of stretchable pressure sensor that can perfectly solve this challenge, which has a high sensitivity without being perturbed from stretching on the sensor. We have integrated the sensor on the fingertip of a robotic hand to achieve the accurate sensing of touch during the finger actuation. We envision that the continued development of such soft and stretchable pressure sensors will lead to the arrival of commercial products that can form highly conformable e-skin on prosthetic hand and give highly accurate sensing.

 

 

How do you apply digital Ethics in your research?

I am also aware that digital ethics is one of the important aspects to be integrated into the research and development of the new type of electronics that interface with human bodies. It is very important to make sure that these technologies only collect data from the human body for good purposes, rather than being intentionally or accidentally taken for unethical uses.

So, while we work on the development of these new types of electronics, we constantly consult with researchers from social sciences community.

 

“It is very important to make sure that these technologies only collect data from the human body for good purposes, rather than being intentionally or accidentally taken for unethical uses”

 

The costs of digital inequity are real: How can this new generation of electronics be at the reach of everyone?

One potential advantages of this new generation of electronics is that it can probably help to reduce the digital inequity among users at different locations and socio-economic status. This is because polymers, compared to Silicon and other inorganic electronic materials, have lower costs and avoid the uses of rare elements. Moreover, solution-based processing that is unique to polymers can enable large-area fabrication, and therefore further lower the cost. 

So ultimately, we can expect this new type of electronics, after being commercialized, will have lower price than the current Si-based electronics. Therefore, it could be more easily reached by everyone.

 

Currently, there is a lot of electronic waste, poorly sustainable for the planet. How can these innovation fight against electronic waste?

Current electronic wastes require complex recycling processes due to the mixing of a large amount of elements. This leads to high recycling cost, large energy consumption, and environment issues. We are now more close searching for versions of the electronic polymer materials that are recyclable or biodegradable for a future of green electroincs.

 

Links of Interest

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aah4496
https://www.anl.gov/cnm/polybot
https://www.technologyreview.com/innovator/jie-xu/
https://www.newsweek.com/2021/12/24/americas-greatest-disruptors-budding-disruptors-1659089.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuFBqxGzLX8&t=1s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyv2GgFhP2s

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