The development of sensors to measure, monitor and provide feedback on biometric data like cholesterol levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and other health indicators has led to improvements in personal health. Fitness tracker technology has made it possible to receive automatic updates and make changes in real time. In some parts of the world, however, affordable wearable health technology is not widely available.

Now a team of physicists at the University of Sussex School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences have created a prototype sensor made with an emulsion of graphene, water, and oil that conducts electricity and is inexpensive to produce. As a recent news release about the development explained, when a tube containing this mixture is bent or stretched, the conductivity of the liquid changes by a predictable amount. Even tiny changes can be measured, making it suitable for detecting small movements such as those caused by heartbeats or breathing. The researchers hope to develop the technology so the monitoring can be done wirelessly and non-invasively, with mounted in wrist bands or embedded within the fabric of a sensor vest. Lead physicist Professor Alan Dalton says the conducting liquid emulsions will allow the production of “cheap, wearable sensors based on graphene. The devices will be comfortable, non-invasive and can provide intuitive diagnostics of breathing and heart rate.”

This lightweight, inexpensive, highly sensitive sensor has the potential to improve the detection of sleep apnea, cardiac arrhythmia, and other life-threatening conditions. It would be able to do so without the need to visit a hospital so that the patient could be attached to medical equipment. Parents of newborns would be able to use the technology to monitor their infants’ heart and breathing rates, sending automatic updates to their smartphones. Because graphene is affordable, the new technology will be accessible to both individuals and health service providers. Professor Dalton and his team are talking to commercial sponsors to fund further research so the product can be brought to market. They hope to see it become available in two to four years.