Forget the “Brick”, This Power Supply for Wearables Is Soft, Stretchable, and Solar-Powered
This soft, stretchable power pack uses an interconnected web of chip-scale lithium ion batteries, shown wrapped around a fingertip.
Photo: John Rogers/University of Illionis at Urbana-Champaign

Skin-like wearables—sensors and other electronics that can be worn comfortably for days at a time because they stretch and feel just like skin—made a big splash at CES. But the first generation of these “electronic tattoos” are externally powered, that is, they harvest RF energy to respond to an external reader. That’s fine for a limited range of applications, when you want to make spot checks of somebody’s temperature, say.

For anything else, though, wearables need power on board—that means batteries and some way to charge them. But, to date, a power supply has represented the antithesis of soft, conforming, skinlike electronics: we don’t call an external power supply a brick for nothing.

When I visited John Rogers and his fellow soft electronics researchers at the University of Illinois a year ago, they showed me some early designs for batteries; these essentially involved chopping a traditional lithium ion battery up into tiny squares and connecting them with stretchable circuits to make a battery that has some stretch and bend to it.

Today, in research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rogers describes the latest evolution of that design: a collection of thin, millimeter-scale solid state lithium-ion batteries connected using stretchable circuits to solar cells, all deposited on a flexible substrate in one layer and then folded over so that the solar cells sit on top of the batteries in the final device. He’s demonstrated the technology as part of a device that incorporates thermal sensors and NFC wireless circuitry to track and log temperature and then transmit the data as necessary. Rogers’ team tested it on volunteers biking and bathing. The thin, flexible patch can stretch up to 30 percent without affecting its solar power generating capabilities, Rogers says, which means users will barely know it’s there.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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