Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attempting to create the so-called Band-Aid of the future. Unlike those bought from the local drug store, these hi-tech patches are made from stretchable hydrogel electronics, and they are far more durable than conventional bandages.
In a news release posted on the school's website, the technology is described as a synthetic, transparent, sticky, stretchy, gel-like material consisting of more than 90 percent water. The adhesive toughness and durability of the hydrogel synthetic has been compared to the bond between tendon, and cartilage on bone, within the body. While tough, the product is able to stretch and remain adherent, ideal for use on flexural surfaces of the body, like the elbow or knee.
The hydrogel matrix was designed by Xuanhe Zhao, Associate Professor in MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering. Zhao and his team then embedded electronics within the hydrogel in an attempt to investigate the possible applications of the product.
In one particular experiment, these embedded components help create a "smart wound dressing." The dressing contained temperature sensors, tiny drug reservoirs, and channels for drugs to flow through the hydrogel. The dressing, which was applied over various surfaces of the body, was able to monitor skin temperature, and in response to abnormal readings detected by the sensor, release drugs from one of the reservoirs to a specific location.
Zhao and his team now hope to exploit the biocompatible nature of the hydrogel to explore how electronics can be integrated to work on the surface, and inside the body as well.
Research is also underway to use hydrogel as an implantable glucose sensor or neural probe, to record electrical activity of the brain. The hope is that the technology can bypass the immune response that occurs when a foreign body (electronic or otherwise) is introduced into the body.
While producing one prototype may not be difficult, manufacturing such a product in large quantities will likely be challenging and expensive. As a result, this may not hit the market anytime soon.
However, earlier this year MIT committed to support a federal initiative to boost manufacturing and innovation of flexible hybrid electronics. With federal, private and public interests at stake, one can only hope that the drive behind this initiative keeps its momentum towards the final product.