It’s no secret that medical equipment has been miniaturising for decades now. The data that previously took a machine the size of a room to monitor can now be measured by something as small as a watch or a smartphone camera, allowing information about our bodies to be gathered, tracked and plotted with almost trivial ease. But the gap between device and patient has recently been fully breached by researchers at the University of Austin, who have drawn up plans for the next innovation in medical technology: Health tattoos that use conductive graphene – a synthetic sheet of one-atom thick graphite – to gather vital information directly from the patient.
The tattoos, which are temporarily applied to the wearer through water, are film-thin and mould to the contours of the skin when applied. Through a similar process to a FitBit or health application, the graphene circuits inside the tattoos gather data such as heart rate, muscle and brain activity by reading the bioimpedance – response of the body’s tissues to electrical current – of the tissues below. They can be peeled off like stickers, wrinkle and stretch with the skin underneath them, and current models remain functional and useful for about two days before losing potency.
The upshot of this is one can be slapped onto a patient and provide a hands-free, quick and easy way to read biometric data, almost like a video game UI on a patient’s flesh. As a result, your average hospital doesn’t need to assign each person an expensive and awkward suite of machines that both take up space and resources to read their vitals. Having access to the tattoos outside of medical facilities will also aid in self-diagnosis and care the way health apps have in recent history.
But why is this such a big deal? The astute reader should already know none of this functionality is new: all of the data a graphene health tattoo provides can already be gathered by other methods, including the ones I’ve detailed above. Measuring a heart rate or brain activity is so commonplace you can buy about a hundred different devices that can do it in your average store. But the implications of graphene as a health material are far greater than this specific product.
For one, these self-contained circuits are small, self-powered and easy to use. This is utterly invaluable for field hospitals or medical facilities without the resources necessary to run a standard diagnostic suite, as well as first responders in accidents who can use their readings to speed up priority processing. If this kind of device becomes as affordable as similar hardware, it could massively improve the quality of medical services in underfunded locations.
What is perhaps more ambitious is the applications of graphene in bionics. Bio-integration between technology and user has been hampered because the key conductive material these in devices – gold – is expensive, rigid, potentially poisonous and difficult to work with flesh. Graphene’s flexibility, elasticity, and ability to fold without breaking, combine with a conductivity rivalling gold’s to provide a material suitable for bionics work that won’t break or possibly damage the person that it’s implanted into. Prototype devices have already been created that allow drones to be controlled through graphene tattoos implanted on the pilot’s eyelids.
It’s a while off – the Austin team wishes to start production in 2022, when they project graphene will become cheaper than gold – but it’s a phenomenally exciting development for the integration of humanity and machines. If graphene proves to be both safe and capable of mass production, how far are we away from commercially available cyborg implants?