Researchers at the University of Tokyo have created a luminescent, ultrathin ‘electronic skin’ that can measure blood oxygen levels and monitor heart rate when stuck to the human body.

The researchers demonstrated its use by creating an air-stable, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. Integrating electronic devices with the human body to enhance or restore body function for biomedical applications is the goal of researchers around the world.

Wearable electronics, in particular, need to be thin and flexible to minimise impact where they attach to the body. However, most devices developed so far have required millimetre-scale thickness glass or plastic substrates with limited flexibility, while micrometre-scale thin flexible organic devices have not been stable enough to survive in air.

The research group led by Professor Takao Someya and Dr Tomoyuki Yokota developed a high-quality protective film less than two micrometres thick that enables the production of ultrathin, ultra-flexible, high performance wearable electronic displays and other devices.

The group developed the protective film by alternating layers of inorganic (Silicon Oxynitrite) and organic (Parylene) material. The protective film prevented passage of oxygen and water vapour in the air, extending device lifetimes from the few hours seen in prior research to several days.

In addition, the team was able to attach transparent indium tin oxide (ITO) electrodes to an ultrathin substrate without damaging it, making the e-skin display possible.

Using the new protective layer and ITO electrodes, the research group created polymer light-emitting diodes (PLEDs) and organic photodetectors (OPDs). These were thin enough to be attached to the skin and flexible enough to distort and crumple in response to body movement. The PLEDs were just three micrometres thick and over six times more efficient than previously reported ultrathin PLEDs.

This reduced heat generation and power consumption, making them particularly suitable for direct attachment to the body for medical applications such as displays for blood oxygen concentration or pulse rate. The research group also combined red and green PLEDs with a photodetector to demonstrate a blood oxygen sensor.

“What would the world be like if we had displays that could adhere to our bodies and even show our emotions or level of stress or unease? In addition to not having to carry a device with us at all times, they might enhance the way we interact with those around us or add a whole new dimension to how we communicate,” said Someya.

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