Micro-electronics

They're not quite like the tracking devices an eastern European fisherman removes from your shoulder when you develop a mysterious case of amnesia, but epidermal electronic systems (EES) certainly bring us closer to live-action monitoring than dog tags.

These über-thin electronic “tattoos” have potential applications on the battlefield and anywhere else real-time monitoring and radio communications are required, and they're just one of many innovations in the field of microtechnology, where everything electrical is miniaturized for efficiency and ease of use.

From tattoos to a better way to count white blood cells, the world of tiny electronics is, well, getting bigger. Here’s a roundup of what’s new and miniaturized on the tech scene, improving everything from covert ops to healthcare administration.

Electronic Tattoos

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University have developed EES devices, or “tattoo electronics,” devices that are so thin and adaptable they can be used like run-of-the-mill temporary tattoos. Except these stick-ons aren’t simply for decoration or showing off your school pride before the big game.

Now in development, these electronics could monitor the brain, heart, and muscle impulses of the wearers. These electroencephalogram (EEG), electrocardiogram (ECG), and electromyogram (EMG) tests would otherwise require much bulkier hospital equipment. Adhesive electronics have the potential to monitor the vital signs of humans in the field, and to aid in everything from wound measurement and treatment to covert communications.

“The electrodes, electronics, sensors, power supply, and communication components are configured together into ultrathin, low-modulus, lightweight, stretchable ‘skin-like’ membranes that…laminate onto the surface of the skin by soft contact, in a manner that is mechanically invisible to the user, much like a temporary transfer tattoo,” write the researchers, lead by John Rogers, PhD, professor of materials science and engineering at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

In testing, the EES devices have lasted for up to 24 hours, and with further study the researchers hope to increase their longevity. Because the human epidermis naturally sheds dead skin cells, further research to find materials that can adhere to the skin without sloughing off or wiping off in the presence of sweat is required.

Water-soluble Electronics

Ever-practical, the U.S. government is looking into the possibility of disappearing electronics. After a mission is completed, what organization wants its radios, sensors, and other communications technology strewn around the battlefield for anyone to pick up?

Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions cutting-edge research for the United States Department of Defense, announced the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. These are the same folks who were at the forefront of developing GPS, voice recognition software, and a foam agent that halts severe internal bleeding for up to three hours.

Transient electronics (here one day, gone the next) is a new field in which electronics are biocompatible and dissolve away in liquid, rendering them useless after they have been discarded. Composed of silk, magnesium, and silicon, these devices are definitely not approved for poolside wear.

Portable X-Rays

If you’ve ever been to the dentist’s office, chances are you’ve been subjected to a dental X-ray, complete with a lead protective vest and a seat inside a large, slightly ominous machine. But researchers from the University of Missouri have developed a radiation source about the size of a stick of gum that could one day replace the bulky X-ray machines in today's doctors' offices and airports.

Composed of lithium niobate crystal, a material used in some cell phone parts, this miniaturized radiation source relies on piezoelectricity, created when the crystal is physically squeezed or compressed. While hand-held prototypes are about three years away, look out for the day when your dentist uses a cell-phone-sized device to scan your pearly whites.

Counting White Blood Cells at Home

At-home health technology is becoming more and more popular, especially to monitor chronic diseases that require nearly constant attention. But medical testing at home means that the bulky machines found in hospitals have to get much, much smaller.

White blood cells, or leukocytes, are your immune system’s warriors. When you have an infection, allergy, inflammation, or injury, your white blood cell count increases as your body ups their production to keep you healthy. But a chronically high or low white blood cell count can indicate larger health problems and is extremely important to identify in patients with cancer or HIV for whom any infection is very serious.

Engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a portable device that can take a white blood cell count using less than a pinprick of blood—much more convenient than the full vial normally required at the doctor’s office. So, while this device isn't quite “micro” (researchers say it fits into a small suitcase), in terms of efficiency, a portable white blood cell counter is just the right size.

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