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These Might Be the Best Stretchy Circuits Yet

The new circuitry was created with unprecedented speed and flexibility, and was designed to usher in the next generation of wearable technologies for mobile health.

University of Wisconsin Stretchy Circuit
The new integrated circuit is stretchy, and can adhere to the skin. (Image courtesy of UW-Madison) 

Kristopher Sturgis

The tiny technology was created to serve as a platform for manufacturers who are looking to expand the applications of wearable electronics, particularly in the realm of biomedical devices. The engineers designed the new stretchy circuits to work with the next generation of broadband wireless electronics that will be known as 5G technologies.

The group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison created the integrated circuits with tiny intertwining power transmission lines that repeat in S-shaped curves. The serpentine shape is what provides the circuits with the ability to stretch without affecting their performance, while also protecting the lines from outside interference. Zhenqiang "Jack" Ma, professor in electrical and computer engineering at the university and leader of the study, told university news that the wireless capabilities could open up a variety of possibilities for future wearable electronics.

"We've found a way to integrate high-frequency active transistors into a useful circuit that can be wireless," he said. "This is a platform. This opens the door to lots of new capabilities."

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The market for wearable technologies continues to saturate as device makers look for innovative electronics to power wearables without compromising comfort. Just last week, researchers from the University of Illinois developed a new line of stretchy batteries and solar cell technologies that could stretch up to 30% without any detectable power loss. Finding a way to make electronics stretchy and bendable will be the key to making wearable technologies as efficient and comfortable as possible.

Ma and his colleagues recognized that to create circuitry with these characteristics, they needed to do so without limiting the circuit's capabilities. Ma developed these new circuits with the serpentine shape in an effort to conceal the transmission lines, confining the electromagnetic waves flowing through them, which essentially eliminates any loss of current. The group's latest prototype was capable of operating at radio frequency levels up to 40 GHz.

Their new circuits could be vital for a bevy of different biomedical devices, most notably epidermal electronic systems--electronic devices that adhere to the surface of your skin that can monitor vital signs in patients.

Additionally, they were able to design their circuits to be extremely thin to better accommodate wearable technologies. Most other stretchable transmission lines are about .64 mm in thickness, but Ma's new stretchable integrated circuits measured out to be a mere .025 mm thick.

Ma and his group have spent the better part of the last decade researching and developing transistor technologies, and only recently began merging transistor devices with flexible electronics. They hope their new stretchy circuits can serve as a platform for future flexible devices, and believe similar designs could jump start a new era of wearable electronics and flexible bioelectronic devices. 

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed.

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