Weaving Electronics into Living Systems

May, 2024

Modern life is filled with electronics that aim to make our days more convenient and connected. From smartphones to smart homes, digital devices have become deeply intertwined with how we work, play, and interact with the world. However, most electronic gadgets lack a key feature – the ability to seamlessly mesh with the living, breathing surfaces of our bodies and environments. What if our electronics could form imperceptible bonds with skin, plants, and other biological materials? A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge may have found an innovative way to do just that through the crafting of organic “bioelectronic fibres.” 
 
Traditional electronics struggle when it comes to integrating with the irregular, constantly shifting forms of living things. Thin, rigid electronic components fail to conform to wrinkles, expansions, and compressions beneath the skin or above plant leaves. They also risk interfering with natural sensations, functions, and transformations through bulk, rigidity, and limited breathability. According to study leader Dr. Yan Yan Shery Huang from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, “Ideally, bioelectronic interfaces should not obstruct the inherent sensations and physiological changes of their hosts.”
Seeking to address these issues, Dr. Huang and her collaborators turned to a fibrous approach inspired by spider webs. Spiders are master architects of intricately patterned yet lightweight meshworks perfectly adapted to local environments. The researchers wondered if microscale electronic fibers could achieve similar feats of customizable, minimally perturbing augmentation when deployed directly onto living substrates.
 
The key was developing special “bioelectronic fibres” crafted from biocompatible compounds like poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene):polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT:PSS), an electrically conductive polymer. By mixing PEDOT:PSS solutions with substances like hyaluronic acid and polyethylene oxide, the team obtained a “viscoelastic solution” able to form thin, durable fibers through an ingenious “orbital spinning” process.
In orbital spinning, the researchers anchor a spinning arm above a target surface – be it a fingertip, plant leaf, or chicken embryo. As the arm rotates, its edges whisk solution threads directly from a syringe nozzle onto the target below. Capillary and viscous forces along with rotations sculpt the material into strands attaching precisely where needed. Through tuning variables like spinning speed, a single nozzle can craft complex fiber patterns nearly as swiftly as spiders weave their webs.
Applying this approach, the researchers succeeded in “tethering” bioelectronic fibres ranging from 1-5 micrometers thick onto an assortment of living forms. Electron microscopy revealed the fibers intimately mating with microscopic crevices and contours from plant trichomes and hair follicles all the way up to fingerprints. Such nanoscale contact is crucial since it allows transducing subtle electrical, thermal, and moisture signals from surfaces below.
 
 
Significantly, tests found the light spinning touches left biological samples like chicken embryos and sensitive Mimosa pudica leaves unchanged. “Our results show that the day-2 chicken embryos with fibre networks on the developing tissue display normal growth rates,” noted Dr. Huang. Fibre deposition hence impacts living substrates little more than a spider’s feet contacting leaves and walls.
Armed with their minimally perturbing fibre networks, the researchers fashioned diverse imperceptible sensors. On human skin, they constructed make-do electrocardiogram and electromyogram electrodes that tracked heartbeats and muscle movements. The fibres could also transform fingertips into living circuits by pairing them with touch-sensitive plant leaves, enabling dual electrocardiogram recording from two individuals in physical contact.
 
 
In plants, distributed fibre grids detected environmental ammonia exposure through changes in an LED’s brightness when powered through the network. And on leaves, the researchers even “rewrote” fibre circuits in situ by erasing unwanted traces and adding new connections – showing how fibre networks foster adaptive, reconfigurable sensing over developmental change.
 
 
Perhaps most remarkably, the bioelectronic fibres married substrates from micrometers to centimeters in scale. The team coupled fibre arrays directly to prefabricated electronic components like micro-LEDs without needing adhesives or stand-ins for missing material properties like stretchability. In the future, similar dry interfacial bonding may join fibres to electronic textiles, truly weaving soft machinery into hardy plant and human tissues.
 
Compared to other augmentation methods, the fibre technique emerges as exceptionally sustainable. Its raw materials involve earth-abundant compounds, and processes consume minimal energy, solution volumes, and generate little waste. Fabricated networks also proved repairable and recyclable – with collected fibres redissolvable into inks for 3D printing later devices. Such closed-loop life cycles could help lower electronics’ environmental impacts according to study co-author and University of Macau Professor Iek Man Lei.
 
 
By spinning together biology and technology at threads’ ends, this work cuts a path toward more natural, imperceptible unions between living forms and the wider digital world. Through bringing electronics into intimate contact with variegated surfaces at multiple scales, bioelectronic fibres may one day cloak us, plants, and more in versatile sensory skins. If scaled and integrated thoughtfully, such augmentations could yield health, environmental, and agricultural benefits while complementing – not copying – life’s inherent properties. In the end, crafting electronics from fibrous threads may just weave machinery most seamlessly into Nature’s tapestries. Though still in early stages, this research spins possibilities for making technology ever more imperceptibly part of our world.

Reference(s)

  1. DOI: 10.1038/s41928-024-01174-4

 

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DIAGNOSTICS | MEDICINE

About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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