The research team, including senior author Yonggang Huang of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern, publish the details of their creation in the journal Nature Communications.
Around 5 cm2 in size, the device consists of up to 3,600 liquid crystals organized on a thin, soft and flexible substrate that can be placed directly on the skin.
According to Huang, the device is "mechanically invisible," noting that its thinness and flexibility makes it "much like the skin itself."
"The device is very practical. When your skin is stretched, compressed or twisted, the device stretches, compresses or twists right along with it," adds co-first author Yihui Zhang, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern.
The technology uses the transient temperature change at the skin's surface to determine blood flow rate, which is of direct relevance to cardio-vascular health, and skin hydration levels (when the skin is dehydrated, the thermal conductivity property changes).
When a crystal senses temperature, it changes color and the dense array provides a snapshot of how the temperature is distributed across the area of the device.
An algorithm translates the temperature data into an accurate health report, all in less than 30 seconds.
"These results provide the first examples of 'epidermal' photonic sensors," added John A. Rogers, a Swanlund chair and professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois.
The team believes the device will be effective for around-the-clock monitoring of both cardiovascular and skin health. Contemplating its potential success, Huang says:
"One can imagine cosmetics companies being interested in the ability to measure skin's dryness in a portable and non-intrusive way. This is the first device of its kind."
The device also has a wireless heating system that can be powered by electromagnetic waves present in the air.
The heating system is used to determine the thermal properties of the skin.
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