Low-cost, high-performance wearable tech comes closer to reality

Washington D.C.: A newly-developed class of breakthrough motion sensors could herald a near future of ubiquitous, fully integrated and affordable wearable tech.
Researchers from the Florida A&M University – Florida State University College of Engineering detailed the impressive properties and cost-effective manufacturing process of an advanced series of motion sensors made using buckypaper – razor thin, flexible sheets of pure, exceptionally durable carbon nanotubes.
These new buckypaper sensors represent a marked improvement on current industry standards, with most sensors being either too crude or too inflexible to reliably monitor complex structures like the human body.
“Current technology is not designed for that,” said researcher Richard Liang. “For sensor technology, you need it to be flexible, you need it to be affordable and you need it to be scalable. This new technology is versatile and the sensors are affordable to print. It’s a big innovation that presents many possibilities down the road.”
At this stage, potential applications for the printable buckypaper sensors are limited only by the breadth of researchers’ imaginations. The low-profile design could be integrated into bedsheets to monitor quality of sleep, shoes to track step count and posture or workout clothes to measure intensity of exercise.
Researchers also foresee potential applications beyond the realm of wearable technology. In the field of soft robotics, the material could facilitate advances in the production of responsive, self-correcting artificial muscles.
Moreover, the scalable sensors represent another step toward the long-predicted future of an “internet of things,” where virtually all of an individual’s computers, devices, garments, furniture and appliances are digitally connected to freely exchange information in the cloud.
Lead author Joshua DeGraff said that this material could be used in structural health monitoring, wearable technology and everything in between.
The novel sensor structure combines a strip of seven micron-thin buckypaper with silver ink electrodes printed from a common, commercially available ink-jet printer.
The result is a kind of perfect Goldilocks sensor: not as insensitive as common, flexible metallic sensors, but not as rigid or cumbersome as popular, more sensitive semi-conductor sensors.
The wearable buckypaper sensors are an ideal marriage of these competing qualities. They’re flexible, seamless and sensitive to subtle movements and strains.
While the technology might not be ready for primetime quite yet, researchers are energized by its promising future.
The study is published in the journal Materials and Design.