Physicists at the University of Sussex in the UK have developed new wearable technology that allows the wireless monitoring of a baby’s health.

The team, led by Professor Alan Dalton from the University’s School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, created a liquid made from an emulsion of graphene (a two-dimensional material made from carbon atoms that is strong, flexible and conductive), water and oil, which conducts electricity.

In a paper they recently published in Nanoscale, the team explained that when the tube holding the liquid is stretched the conductivity of the liquid changes. This sensitivity allows it to pick up small signals when attached to the body, such as respiration rate and pulse rate, making it an ideal sensor.

“What’s quite exciting about this new type of conductive liquid is how sensitive it is to being stretched. When the graphene particles are assembled around the liquid droplets electrons can hop from one particle to the next; this is why the whole liquid is conductive,” said Lead Researcher on the project, Dr Matthew Large.

“When we stretch our sensors we squeeze and deform the droplets; this moves the graphene particles further apart and makes it much harder for the electrons to hop across the system. The sensitivity of this new kind of strain sensor is actually much higher than a lot of existing technologies, and it is the most sensitive liquid-based device ever reported, by quite a significant margin,” continued Dr Large.

The team developed their idea for the health monitor in response to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation calling for new affordable wearable health technologies for babies in situations where resources are scarce.

Current baby pulse monitors require sensors that need to be attached to the babies’ feet or hands. These sensors are attached to wires, which interfere with the babies’ movement, and also often fall off. In comparison, the new health monitoring invention is wireless and non-invasive because it can be equipped in a wristband or even embedded into a sensor vest that the baby can wear.

Outside of a care setting, the technology could also be used at home when parents want to monitor their sleeping babies’ breathing rates via their smartphone, or even for adults who, for example, suffer from sleep apnoea or cardiac arrhythmia. It’ll also be useful for those who just want to monitor their heart or respiration rates during exercise.

“Using the conducting liquid emulsions we have developed, we will produce cheap, wearable sensors based on graphene. The devices will be comfortable, non-invasive and can provide intuitive diagnostics of breathing and heart rate. We will eventually have a suit that the baby can wear which will read-out all vital information wirelessly. We hope to see this made available within two to four years,” said Prof Dalton.

“Graphene is very affordable as it can be produced using naturally occurring graphite, so this could be rolled out on a big scale. This is good news for health services because the new technology will not be expensive to make and buy. It also means it should be affordable to individuals,” continued Prof Dalton.

The team have successfully developed a prototype of their product. They are now in discussions with commercial sponsors to receive further funding for their research so that they can eventually bring their solution to market.

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