A new wearable sensing technology developed by researchers at Tufts University’s School of Engineering is described in the journal Advanced Materials. The biomaterial-based inks that can be screen printed onto textiles have the capability to detect and quantify biological conditions and molecules, and could potentially even identify pathogens.
"The use of novel bioactive inks with the very common method of screen printing opens up promising opportunities for the mass-production of soft, wearable fabrics with large numbers of sensors that could be applied to detect a range of conditions," said Fiorenzo Omenetto, corresponding author and the Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts' School of Engineering. "The fabrics can end up in uniforms for the workplace, sports clothing, or even on furniture and architectural structures."
One other use, they say, could be on face masks, where they could provide a map of human chemical responses and exposure. The inks work by changing color in response to chemicals released by the body, such as sweat and other biofluids. Made from biologically activated silk-based inks, this non-electronic, colorimetric approach is different from other wearable device mechanisms in that it can cover a large area and therefore theoretically detect a very large number of analytes.
"The screen printing approach provides the equivalent of having a large, multiplexed arrangement of sensors covering extensive areas of the body, if worn as a garment, or even on large surfaces such as room interiors," said first author Giusy Matzeu, research assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts School of Engineering.
"Coupled with image analysis, we can obtain a high-resolution map of color reactions over a large area and gain more insight on the overall physiological or environmental state. In theory, we could extend this method to track air quality, or support environmental monitoring for epidemiology."
This technology has utility beyond that of just collecting physiological data. Laia Mogas-Soldevila, architect and recent Ph.D. graduate at Tufts has used the technique to create interactive tapestries that are exhibited in museums across the United States and Europe."This is really a great example of how art and engineering can gain from and inspire each other," said Mogas-Soldevila. "The engineered inks open up a new dimension in responsive, interactive tapestries and surfaces, while the 1,000-year old art of screen printing has provided a foundation well suited to the need for a modern high resolution, wearable sensing surface."