We live in a world where we can order a cab with just the click of a button and where vehicles can park themselves. These minor upgrades in daily life often make us forget about the extensive amount of research that’s behind making the lives of humans more convenient and practical on a larger scale. Developments in the field of technology have arisen not only due to the need for faster and easier execution of tasks but also to feed the insatiable urge humans have for convenience. Similarly, this strive for convenience has shaped The Arias Research Group’s research on flexible electronics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Housed within UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, The Arias Research Group focuses on printed electrical systems for energy and medical applications. Led by Professor Ana Claudia Arias and driven by improving people’s lives through medical technology, the research group sews together the various strides it has made in the field of flexible electronics to make possible a future comprised of wearable medical devices.
“I dream to have a comfortable medical device that has been designed to fit all types of people with chronic disease without being noticed by the user,” Arias said as she divulged the inspiration behind her work. “Anything we humans pick is based on comfort and convenience, but we do not have that when it comes to medical devices.”
The idea of aligning flexibility of devices with medical technology came to her when she was working for Xerox. She realized that flexible electronics are the perfect tool for interacting with the body as they are easy to customize. The idea of flexible electrical systems has been prevalent for quite a while, but no major leaps have been made in making them more effective and flexible in all directions. However, using sophisticated principles and drawing on Professor Arias’ past industry experience, the Arias Research Group has been able to successfully create an electronic device that isflexible along all the planes. In addition, the research group has also created an electronic device made out of a blend of chemical solutions that outperform industry-level silicon devices in cost and performance.
One goal of the research group is to leverage this technology in order to improve upon conventional oximeters. An oximeter is a medical instrument that computes the oxygen saturation level in an individual’s blood stream. Currently, an oximeter is mapped through the user’s finger and due to the small surface area and inevitable finger twitches, it does not produce very accurate data. However, the research group has been able to design a ‘Flexible Organic Oximeter’ which enables the device to be placed over larger sensing locations, such as the forearm, that are prone to less movement and collect two-dimensional data. Thus, the device can potentially lead physicians to make more reliable diagnosis as it is able to yield data with greater accuracy and minimal uncertainty.
When Arias was asked about some of the limits of current medical technology, she said “Devices are often not tuned towards children and babies, because of their varying body sizes and restless motions.” She wants to design customizable medical devices that do not constrain the freedom of the patients in any manner.
In collaboration with a UC Berkeley colleague, Professor Arias has launched a biotech start-up at the heart of the Silicon Valley. Drawing upon their respective expertise on flexible electronics and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), their work aims to devise a product that enables newborn babies to undergo critical MRI scans. In the past, traditional procedures have restricted infants from undergoing MRI scans because of the risks associated with compressive forces acting on their delicate frames.
To combat the issue, Arias and her colleagues managed to embed flexible MRI coil panels within a fleece blanket that comfortably cocoons the newborn baby during the procedure. By inheriting novel techniques for printing electronics, they are able to design MRI coils that are cheap and lightweight. The flexibility aspect of this technology enables it to be compatible with any body size and shape. This invention is not only capable of performing to industry standards but can solve similar diagnostic related issues faced by elderly or ill members of society.
Professor Arias sites diversity as a key driver for success for her research group. She firmly believes that working with people with different backgrounds bring different perspectives to solve tough engineering problems. Diversity has enabled the group to innovate through collaboration and tackle questions at the frontier of innovation — for example, she was able to couple her knitting skills with one of her students’ expertise on laser cutting to seamlessly attach a flexible electronic panel to pieces of clothing. For Professor Arias, diversity “enables us to complement each other’s trade and maintain a good social atmosphere in the lab.”
Professor Arias’ research on optimizing diagnosis practices to addressing chronic illnesses is at the frontier of medical innovation.
Arias says, “Technology is never adopted in society if we compromise on performance,” and hence she highlights the importance of the quality of work conducted by the design engineers within her team to produce an inexpensive, robust yet well performing device.
Integrating performance with convenience, there is no doubt that this technology will directly bolster patients’ comfort of treatment and substantially improve their quality of life. Spurred by the progress of her work in the medical arena, Professor Arias looks to widen her horizons and delve deeper into the general applications of wearable technology — think smart watches, wearable-electronic activity trackers and so on.
The work engineers do shapes the world around us. But given the technical nature of that work, non-engineers may not always realize the impact and reach of engineering research. In E185: The Art of STEM Communication, students learn about and practice written and verbal communication skills that can bring the world of engineering to a broader audience. They spend the semester researching projects within the College of Engineering, interviewing professors and graduate students, and ultimately writing about and presenting that work for a general audience. This piece is one of the outcomes of the E185 course.