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Graphene-based Sensor Brings New Wrinkle to Wearables

Badge-sized device could offer continuous monitoring for a variety of diseases

2 min read
A microscope slide with a ring of light surrounding a black square surrounding a white rectangle.
Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

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The capabilities of wearable sensors seem to be expanding every day. However, for the most part these sensors have measured just physical attributes, like heart rate.

Now researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a graphene-based wearable sensor capable of detecting airborne chemicals that serve as indicators of medical conditions. For instance, the sensor could detect acetone, which is a biomarker for diabetes. Or it could detect abnormal levels of nitric oxide and oxygen, which would be an indicator of conditions such as high blood pressure, anemia, or lung disease.

“With our platform technology, we can measure a variety of chemicals at the same time, or modify the device to target specific chemicals. There are limitless possibilities,” said Zhaohui Zhong, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, in a press release.

The researchers had to take a novel approach to how the nanosensor detect chemicals. In research, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, the Michigan researchers developed a sensing mechanism based on detecting molecular dipoles.

This sensing mechanism stands in contrast to most other nanosensors, which are based on detecting a change in charge density due to a molecule binding to the sensor.

“Nanoelectronic sensors typically depend on detecting charge transfer between the sensor and a molecule in air or in solution,” said Girish Kulkarni, a doctoral candidate and one of the researchers, in a press release. “Instead of detecting molecular charge, we use a technique called heterodyne mixing, in which we look at the interaction between the dipoles associated with these molecules and the nanosensor at high frequencies.”

The researchers claim that the graphene made this sensing technique possible, resulting in extremely fast response times of tenths of a second as opposed to tens or hundreds of seconds in existing technology. In addition to fast response times the sensors are highly sensitive, capable of detecting molecules with a concentration of a few parts per billion.

With these graphene-based sensors, the researchers have been able to put an entire chromatography system on a single chip that is able to operate with very little power. With this setup, a badge-side device could be worn on the body to give continuous monitoring of health conditions.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
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There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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