Making Tiny, Flexible Electronics for Use Inside the Human Body

"We are trying to reshape electronics to advance the quality of life," said David Icke, CEO of MC10 at a special FutureMed-organized event on the evening of February 10. Icke explained that his company was working to free "electronics from the tyranny of rigid wafers," enabling them to interface with soft tissue.

While the exponential pace of development has enabled phenomenal gains in computing power, modern electronics are typically rigid and packaged into boxy devices. It is certainly true that the mobile paradigm has changed how (and how often) we interact with electronic devices, but Icke predicts that further changes are on the horizon and that the next big trend will be conformable electronics.

MC10 is working to hasten that transformation. "We are trying to take electronics out of the proverbial box and interface them with the body," he said at the event. "Flexible electronics have been around for a long time but not at the microelectronics level with the performance you need to really enable a new world of wearable devices and medical devices." MC10 is working to enable that new world by developing electronics that stretch and expand with the body. The technology can be used on the body, and even inside of the body.

The basic principle that enables electronics to flex starts with the observation that if you make something thin, you can start to make it flexible. "If you compare a two-by-four with a tissue paper, they are the same fundamental material," Icke said. Silicon is the same way. "If you have a wafer in a semiconductor fab, it is very thick so it doesn't break, but it is rigid and brittle." But, if made thin enough, the material becomes somewhat flexible.

The technology that MC10 is working on is composed of thin nanoribbons of silicon that are arranged accordion-like in waves. The resulting material can stretch and conform to the contours of the human body -- like Spandex or Nylon.

The flexible electronics could be used for a range of applications from optimizing the performance of, say, an athlete or soldier, to monitoring safety and preventing injury, Icke said.

MC10 is now working on using the technology in low-cost paper diagnostics in a partnership with the Gates Foundation and Diagnostics for All. The diagnostic components can be printed with a standard ink-jet printer and include integrated electronics.

Other applications of the technology are what Icke described as "epidermal electronics" and "interventional circuits." Examples of the latter could include smart stents and multifunctional optoelectronic catheters that can measure atrial fibrillation, Icke said.

The technology's application for skin-based electronics got a good deal of attention when it was picked up by the press last year. These electronics, which are about five microns thick, can be applied like an artificial tattoo. "The modulus is matched to the skin, so when you squeeze it, it moves right along with the skin," Icke said.

This post also appears on medGadget, an Atlantic partner site.