Welcome to 2013! To start the year right, how about some interesting sensor-related research? This month we've got a way to achieve a longer shelf life for lab on a chip technology, a small portable X-ray source, and stretchy circuits to protect against cot death.
Lab on Chip With A Long Life
The entire idea behind the lab on a chip technology—the ability to perform rapid biochemical analyses in a doctor's office rather than having to take a sample, send it off to a lab, and wait a week or so for results—is so very attractive both for the time savings but also for its ability to broaden access to medical diagnostics. As with any new technology there are, alas, technical hurdles to overcome and NIST and the Naval Research Lab have just patented an idea that could greatly improve the shelf life of labs on chips that depend on nanopores in lipid membranes to selectively pass only protein or DNA molecules of diagnostic interest. While lipid membranes are very good at what they do, they don't last very long; for a lipid-based lab on a chip to be truly useful, it has to last longer than a week and that's where the idea comes in. The researchers, as described in "NIST Patent Could Give 'Lab on a Chip' Technology Long Shelf Life", tested whether they could polymerize the lipid layers and still maintain the nanopores's functionality and found, happily, that they could and that the polymerized membranes had a greatly improved life-span.
Small, Low-Power Portable X-Ray Source
What's about the size of a pack of gum, operates from a 10 V supply, and produces X-rays? That would be the new X-ray source developed by researchers led by Scott Kovaleski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Missouri. Their device incorporates a lithium niobate crystal that uses the piezoelectric effect to amplifiy the 10 V input into >100,000 V, which is then used to generate the X-rays, as described in the news article, "Portable X-Ray Source Invented at MU Could Put Medical Diagnosis and Terrorism Prevention in the Palm of the Hand". The X-ray source could be used to create inexpensive and portable X-ray scanners for medical, industrial, and security uses.
Stretchy Circuits for Safer Babies
The idea of incorporating electronics into clothing and other textiles is intriguing, to say the least. I particularly like the project out of Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin that applied a stretchable printed circuit board and a couple of sensors into a romper suit to monitor infant respiration and warn the parents if the baby stops breathing. Their circuit board uses polyurethane as its substrate and the circuits are printed onto the material using routine industrial processes. To control the tendency of the polyurethane to stretch during processing (an ongoing challenge for textile-based electronics) so that components could be placed with high accuracy, the researchers developed a support that stabilizes the boards during processing. As the article, "Romper suit to protect against sudden infant death" details, the stretchy circuits have other possible uses, for smart bandages and subtle automotive lighting.