Ultrasound is one of the most valuable imaging technologies available in healthcare. It does not need special rooms; a typical device can roll around on an equipment cart. It’s noninvasive, yet lets us peer deep inside living tissue. It relies on sound waves — vibrations — that are far safer than the various other electromagnetic imaging solutions used in medicine. Traditional ultrasound machines are expensive, however, relying on piezoelectric crystals fabricated on silicon, which require complex manufacturing facilities.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have come up with an innovative alternative. They created tiny drums out of plastic. And when I say “tiny,” I mean really tiny; the individual structures are just 50 microns in diameter which is about the cross-section dimension of an average human hair. Fabrication is fairly straightforward and requires many fewer steps than traditional piezoelectric crystals. The result is a transducer that costs less to produce and can be flexible to conform with body shapes. The device requires little power, and can use a smartphone or tablet as a power source. In tests, the images produced by this plastic transducer were as sharp or sharper than traditional ultrasound technology.

Ultimately, this new approach could make it possible to build an ultrasound device that costs as little as $100. This could make this important form of medical imaging broadly available to patients, as well as to healthcare workers in rural or underdeveloped regions. It could lead to better and faster diagnoses for a wide range of medical conditions including illness and injuries.