Scientists at the University of Sussex have successfully tested new biodegradable health sensors that could change the way we perceive personal healthcare and fitness monitoring technology.
The Sussex team developed the new health sensors – such as those worn by runners or patients to monitor heart rate and temperature – using natural elements such as rock salt, water and seaweed combined with graphene. Because they are made solely from ingredients found in nature, the sensors are completely biodegradable, making them more environmentally friendly than commonly used rubber and plastic-based alternatives. Their natural composition also places them in the emerging scientific field of edible electronics—electronic devices that are safe for human consumption.
Even better, the researchers found that their sustainable seaweed-based sensors actually outperform existing synthetic-based hydrogels and nanomaterials used in wearable health monitors in terms of sensitivity. Therefore, improving accuracy as the more sensitive the sensor, the more accurately it will record the person’s vital signs.
The idea of using seaweed in a health monitoring device was sparked when lead scientist Dr Connor Boland, a physicist at the University of Sussex, was watching TV while in isolation.
Dr Conor Boland, lecturer in materials physics in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, said: “I was first inspired to use algae in the lab after watching MasterChef during lockdown. Algae, when used to thicken desserts, gives them a softness and bouncy texture – favored by vegans and vegetarians as an alternative to gelatin This got me thinking: “what if we could do this with sensory technology?”
“For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this development is that we have a sensor that is both fully biodegradable and highly efficient. The mass production of unsustainable rubber and plastic-based health technologies can ironically pose a risk to human health through microplastics leaking into water sources as they degrade.
“As a new parent, I see it as my responsibility to ensure that my research enables the realization of a cleaner world for all our children.”
Algae is primarily an insulator, but by adding a critical amount of graphene to a mixture of seaweed, scientists were able to create an electrically conductive film. When soaked in a salt bath, the film rapidly absorbs water, resulting in a soft, spongy, electrically conductive hydrogel.
The development has the potential to revolutionize health monitoring technology, as future applications of clinical wearable sensors will look like a second skin or a temporary tattoo: lightweight, easy to apply and safe as they are made with all-natural ingredients. This would greatly improve the overall patient experience, without the need for more commonly used and potentially invasive hospital instruments, leads and wires.
Dr Sue Baxter, Director of Innovation and Business Partnerships at the University of Sussex, is excited about the potential benefits of this technology: “At the University of Sussex, we are committed to protecting the future of the planet through sustainability research, experience and innovation. what’s so exciting about this development by Dr Conor Boland and his team is that it manages to be both truly sustainable, affordable and highly effective – surpassing synthetic alternatives.
“What’s also remarkable about this stage of the research – and I think it speaks to the meticulous groundwork that Dr Boland and his team laid when they created their plan – is that this is more than a proof of principle development. Our Sussex scientists have created a device that has real potential to develop industry into a product that you or I can benefit from in the relatively near future.”
This latest research breakthrough follows the publication of a nanomaterials development plan by Sussex scientists in 2019, which sets out a method for researchers to follow to optimize the development of nanomaterial sensors.
The lead author, working on the findings under Dr Boland’s guidance, was Sussex student MA Kevin Doty.
Kevin Doty, MSc in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, said: “I used to teach chemistry but decided I wanted to learn more about nanoscience. My gamble paid off and not only did I enjoy it more than I expected, but I also got the opportunity to use the information I had learned to work on a new idea that turned into a first author publication as a master’s degree. Studying nanoscience showed me how diverse and multidisciplinary the field is. Each scientific background can bring knowledge that can be applied to the field in a unique way. This led to further study into a PhD, opening up a whole new career path that I couldn’t have considered before.”