Imagine a bandage that can sense when the tissue underneath is inflamed, and can automatically deliver drugs in response. Imagine that the bandage can even produce a visible alert when infection is detected. And imagine that this bandage uses a material that is tough, stretchable, and made mostly of water.
As improbable as this may sound, that’s the result of researchers at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. They have created a durable hydrogel material that can carry embedded electronics components, such as sensors or LEDs. Traditional hydrogels are brittle and often break when stretched or bent. The MIT group used biopolymers as the basis for their hydrogel, creating a flexible material that can be bent and stretched. They then were able to embed electronics components in the material, including temperature sensors, conductive wires, drug reservoirs, and even light-emitting LEDs. In the tests, the components continued to work even when placed on places that bend, such as a knee or elbow.
Encapsulating the electronics within the gel may prevent the immune system from launching a “foreign-body” response to the components. This means that the material may be useful not only for smart bandages on the surface of the skin, but also for devices embedded within the body. It might even be suitable for probes and implanted devices within the brain.