Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) have developed new tiny optical sensors that can be incorporated into wearable devices.

The sensors are reportedly 50 times thinner than a human hair and can measure very small concentrations of gases coming through human skin and breath. According to the researchers, this process could allow doctors to keep track of their patient’s health in real-time.

In a paper published in Advanced Materials, the researchers explained how the sensors can potentially help doctors detect the early onset of diseases such as diabetes and better manage a range of chronic conditions.

“These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health,” said Leader of the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at the ANU Research School of Engineering, Associate Professor Antonio Tricoli.

“This exciting invention shows that we are on the cusp of designing the next generation of wearable devices that will help people to stay well for longer and lead better lives,” continued Prof Tricoli.

The sensors are made up of small gold nanostructures that are combined with semiconductors in a way that its unique properties enable it to detect gas molecules at very low concentrations.

According to Prof Tricoli, the sensors and the future wearables that they will form a part of could replace the need for wires as well as large and expensive lab equipment, which are currently used to monitor patient’s health indicators.

“A wearable medical diagnostic device using our optical sensors may one day eliminate the need for blood tests and many other invasive procedures,” said Prof Tricoli.

PhD student in the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory, Zelio Fusco, added that the new sensors have advantages over other types being developed for wearable medical devices because they detect metabolites in smaller concentrations and operate at room temperature.

“The beauty of our sensors is that they are super versatile and can be integrated into different technologies for applications ranging from medical diagnosis, farming and space exploration,” said Fusco.

“Our sensors could be developed to detect whether a plant has a particular disease or a fruit is ripe, for example,” concluded Fusco.

ANU’s research was supported by the Queensland University of Technology and the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

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