These Amazing Electronic Tattoos Could Transform Healthcare

electronic tattoos
Credit: Nick Williams/Duke University

Part of the beauty of tattoos is the unique way they allow us to express ourselves. Tattoos can be symbols of friendship, markers of our identity, and expressions of self-love. But with the advent of new technologies (and some seriously smart engineers), tattoos can also be used for other, less expressive and more practical purposes. Take, for example, these newly innovated electronic tattoos that could change patient-facing healthcare forever.

Created by a team of engineers at Duke University in North Carolina, these printable electronic tattoos sit on the surface of the skin, similar to the temporary tattoo stickers many of us wore as children. But they offer benefits that far exceed anything that gum ball machines dispensed back in the day. While the technology behind this new ink is still being researched—and not yet practically utilized—there’s great potential for it to be used in the future, whether it be through the creation of personalized bandages or through tattoos that double as biosensors to monitor patient vitals signs. 

“Think about creating bespoke bandages that contain electronics like biosensors, where a nurse could just walk over to a workstation and punch in what features were needed for a specific patient,” Aaron Franklin, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, said in an article about the technology first published on the school’s website. “This is the type of print-on-demand capability that could help drive that.”

These electronic tattoos are printed directly onto the skin at a low temperature—eliminating any fear of burns—which allows the ink dry quickly (in under two minutes). And the tattoos are flexible, so they’ll keep working even if you’re moving. In fact, to show just how well they work, Nick Williams, a graduate student at the university tested the technology on his own pinky. He used the electrical ink to power a tiny LED light he connected to his finger, and it remained lit even while he bent his pinky back and forth. 

But electronic tattoos weren’t created by the team at Duke University. The first version of this technology was actually conceptualized in the late 2000s by John Rogers, a physical chemist and a materials scientist, during his tenure at the University of Illinois. Rogers’ version of the temporary tattoos are ultra-thin patches that, similar to the technology from Duke, could be used to for medical monitoring, like keeping track of brain, muscle, or heart activity. But unlike the new technology, which allows the tattoos to be printed directly onto users’ skin, Rogers’ patches need to be assembled separately. 

Now, it’s possible to print personalized electronic tattoos on the spot, thanks to the Duke team’s innovation. And while this isn’t exactly standard body art—and there’s far more research that needs to be done to implement the electronic tattoos as everyday biosensors—it’s a great example of one of the many ways tattoos are transforming the world around us. 

If you liked our post These Amazing Electronic Tattoos Could Transform Healthcare, make sure to check out How a ‘Can I Pet Your Dog?’ Tattoo Tackles Social Anxiety.

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