It’s been about five years since I first wrote about John Rogers’ stretchy silicon research out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He had the idea that high-quality silicon–the kind that usually comes as a rigid chip–could work even if put on a stretchable surface. When electronics stretch, Rogers claimed, they can conform to any shape, even the soft squishy one of the human body.
With this suggestion, a whole world of possible applications emerges. Stretchable electronics could be embedded into gloves and clothing without bulkiness. Surgeon gloves could constantly monitor blood pH and other chemical levels. Athletes could wear technical clothing with hidden sensors that give them performance feedback. Stretchable sensors could even wrap around the gyri of the brain to monitor seizure activity.
Already, Rogers has demonstrated an eye ball-shaped camera with a spherical imaging sensor. The design provides a wider field of view and fewer aberrations than traditional cameras that use a curved lens and flat sensor. The eyeball camera could make a lighter, smaller, more robust camera than anything available today.
Rogers has also shown off a balloon catheter that sports an expandable array of hundreds of thousands of sensors. The catheter inflates inside the heart to watch electrical activity; people with atrial fibrillation are good candidates for such a procedure. This new catheter can map a larger area, more quickly than ever before. When it finds a trouble spot, it uses tiny electrodes to burn away the tissue.
There is a lot of exciting activity going on with stretchable, wearable, conformable electronics. I wrote a round-up of the research in the recent Technology Quarterly in The Economist:
Stretchable Electronics: A shapely future for circuits
Here is the excellent video that accompanies the story, with demonstrations of the brain sensors, eye-ball camera, and balloon catheter.
Below is a list of other stories on stretchy electronics projects, some written by me, others written by my colleague Katherine Bourzac at Technology Review.
A Stretchy Sensing Tool for Surgery
Light-emitting Rubber Could Sense Structural Damage
Stretchable Silicon Could Make Sports Apparel Smarter
An Eyeball Camera, Now with Zoom
Stretchable Silicon (original 2006 article)