How to Engineer New Wearable Sensors

September 4, 2020
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It was not too long ago that tech companies were promising a revolution of wearable devices. Those promises haven’t panned out to the degree that so many expected. Wearable devices do exist, but they are not nearly as widespread as some thought they would be by now. They also offer only limited functionality in most cases.

So how can the tech industry change things? Through creative engineering. And how do you engineer better wearable sensors? By pushing the boundaries, trying new things, and never taking no for an answer. As evidence, consider a project being worked on by a consortium of seven universities, including Northeastern University and Penn State.

Their research has produced a new wearable sensor that utilizes laser-induced graphene foam and other materials to detect the presence of gas. The sensor is small enough to be embedded in a glove and worn on top of the finger.

Detecting Nitrogen Dioxide Gas

For their project, researchers chose to focus on nitrogen dioxide gas. It is a gas that is emitted by internal combustion engines. It can be an irritant to people with allergies, respiratory illnesses, and lung disease. If inhaled in large enough qualities for a long enough of time, nitrogen dioxide gas can actually kill.

You can imagine how helpful a wearable device would be for city dwellers already suffering from respiratory problems. The device can be worn daily, simply by attaching it to clothing, to warn of excessive nitrogen dioxide in the air. A person wearing the sensor could take the necessary precautions to protect him or herself.

To keep things as simple as possible, the researchers combined different concentrations of their nano composite materials in sensors of different shapes. They wanted to see how the nano composites reacted to nitrogen dioxide molecules under a variety of conditions.

The end result of their research and engineering is a wearable, stretchable, and deformable sensor that does a decent job of detecting gas. They finally settled on a sensor that was made most accurate by embedding the nano composites in salt and then removing the salt by dissolving it in water. The leftover crystals did the trick.

Realizing the Promise of Wearables

When wearables were first pushed years ago, the idea was to create all sorts of devices with concrete medical applications. For example, one thought was a device that could monitor vital signs and transmit data to physician offices so the doctors could monitor the health of at-risk patients.

The promise of wearables is one of improving health and well-being by relying on sensors to monitor both the environment and individual health. That promise will eventually be fulfilled, but it is going to take more time than originally anticipated.

At Rock West Solutions in Southern California, engineering these types of sensors is part of the daily routine. Their engineering services have helped countless companies develop custom-made sensors for a variety of needs in and outside of healthcare.

Rock West engineers explain that the biggest barrier to wearables is finding that sweet spot between useful information and practical application. Medical science already has a plethora of sensors capable of collecting all sorts of information. But how much of that information should actually be gleaned from a wearable device? Furthermore, can the sensors be modified for wearable use without generating additional noise that has to be filtered out through signal processing?

The team behind the new wearable gas sensor have accomplished something impressive. Thanks to a clear vision, concrete engineering, and the willingness to try new things, they could eventually have a new wearable with an important practical application.

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