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Stretchy sensors detect harmful gases and UV radiation

10 June 2015

Australian researchers have created wearable sensor patches that detect harmful UV radiation and harmful gases such as hydrogen and nitrogen dioxide.

Philipp Gutruf holds up a sample of the teams stretchable sensor patch material

“Hydrogen leaks can lead to explosions as happened with the Hindenburg disaster and nitrogen dioxide is a major contributor to smog,” says project leader Dr Madhu Bhaskaran, working at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. “The ability to monitor such gases in production facilities and coal-fired power stations gives vital early warning of explosions, while the ability to sense nitrogen dioxide allows for a constant monitoring of pollution levels in crowded cities.”

The latest development follows RMIT’s MicroNano Research Facility breakthrough in bendable electronics which has paved the way for flexible mobile phones.

Lead author, PhD researcher Philipp Gutruf, says the unbreakable, stretchy electronic sensors are also capable of detecting harmful levels of UV radiation known to trigger melanoma.

Much like a nicotine patch, they can be worn on the skin. In future, they will be able to link to electronic devices to continuously monitor UV-levels and alert the user when radiation reaches harmful levels.

Gutruf said the research used zinc oxide - present in most sunscreens as a fine powder mixed into a lotion - as the UV sensing material. Zinc oxide was used in the form of very thin coatings over a hundred times thinner than a sheet of paper.

“This thin zinc oxide layer is engineered with a plate-like structure that we call micro-tectonics, these plates can slide across each other bit like geological plates that form the earth’s crust  allowing for high sensitivity and the ability to bend and flex the devices,” he adds.

Dr Bhaskaran said the sensors are cheap and durable – attributes which she says will see flexible electronics and sensors become an integral part of everyday life.

The research is published in the micro/nano-science journal, Small.


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