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Stretchable Circuits Yield New Wave Of Wearable Electronics

The consumer marketplace is flooded with a lively assortment of smart wearable electronics that do everything from monitor vital signs, fitness or sun exposure to playing music, charge other electronics or even purify the air around you — all wirelessly.

Now, a team of engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has created the world’s fastest stretchable, wearable integrated circuits, an advance that could drive the Internet of Things and a much more connected, high-speed wireless world.

Led by Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor in Engineering and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering at UW–Madison, the researchers, published details of these powerful, highly efficient integrated circuits today, May 27, 2016, in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

The advance is a platform for manufacturers seeking to expand the capabilities and applications of wearable electronics — including those with biomedical applications — especially since they strive to develop devices that take advantage of a new generation of wireless broadband technologies referred to as 5G.




With wavelength sizes between a millimetre and a meter, microwave radio frequencies are electromagnetic waves that use frequencies in the .3 gigahertz to 300 gigahertz range. That falls directly in the 5G range.

In mobile communications, the vast microwave radio frequencies of 5G networks will accommodate a growing number of smartphone users and notable increases in data speeds and coverage areas.

In an intensive care unit, epidermal electronic systems (electronics that adhere to the skin like temporary tattoos) could allow healthcare staff to monitor patients remotely and wirelessly, increasing patient comfort by decreasing the customary tangle of cables and wires.

What makes the new, stretchable integrated circuits so powerful is their unique structure, inspired by twisted-pair telephone cables. They contain, essentially, two ultra-tiny intertwining power transmission lines in repeating S-curves.

This serpentine shape — formed in two layers with segmented metal blocks, like a 3-D puzzle — gives the transmission lines the ability to stretch without affecting their performance. It also helps shield the lines from outside interference and, at the same time, confine the electromagnetic waves flowing through them, almost eliminating current loss. Currently, the researchers’ stretchable integrated circuits can operate at radio frequency levels up to 40 gigahertz.




The advance could allow healthcare staff to monitor patients remotely and wirelessly, increasing patient comfort by decreasing the customary tangle of cables and wires.

Moreover, unlike other stretchable transmission lines, whose widths can approach 640 micrometres (or .64 millimetres), the researchers’ new stretchable integrated circuits are just 25 micrometres (or .025 millimetres) thick. That is tiny enough to be highly effective in epidermal electronic systems, among many other applications.

Ma’s group has been developing what are known as active transistor devices for the past decade. This latest advance marries the researchers’ expertise in both high-frequency and flexible electronics.

“We have found a way to integrate high-frequency active transistors into a useful circuit that can be wireless,” says Ma, whose work was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. “This is a complete platform that opens the door to lots of new capabilities.”

Other authors on the paper include Yei Hwan Jung, Juhwan Lee, Namki Cho, Sang June Cho, Huilong Zhang, Subin Lee, Tong June Kim and Shaoqin Gong of UW–Madison and Yijie Qiu of the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

The article has minor changes for readability and to match our website format.

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