Researchers from the University of Cambridge have announced 3D printed tiny and transparent conducting fibers that can capture exhaled breath to help diagnose medical conditions. The small conducting fibers can be used to make devices able to “smell, hear, and touch,” making them ideally suited for health monitoring, Internet of Things, and biosensing applications. The electronic fibers are 100 times thinner than a human hair and have capabilities beyond those of conventional film-based devices.
The fiber printing technique can be used to make non-contact, wearable, portable respiratory sensors. The sensors are high-sensitivity and cheap to make with the ability to be attached to a mobile phone to collect breath pattern information, sound, and images at the same time. Scientists believe that the fibers can test the amount of breath moisture leaked through face covering to monitor respiratory conditions, including normal breathing, rapid breathing, and simulated coughing.
The sensors significantly outperformed comparable commercial sensors, particularly in monitoring rapid breathing replicating shortness of breath. The fiber sensor isn’t designed to detect viral particles, such as those exhaled by a person infected with the coronavirus. However, the sensor could help find leaks that happen through various types of face coverings.
Researchers found most leakages from fabric or surgical masks come to the front, especially during coughing, while most leakages from N95 masks come from the top and sides. The printing technique can be used to make biocompatible fibers of a similar dimension to biological cells enabling them to guide cell movements and to “feel” the dynamic process as electrical signals.
The team points out that the fibers are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye, and when used to connect small electronic elements in 3D, it would seem that the electronics are floating in the air. The fibers are lightweight, cheap, small, and easy to use, making them suited to home-test devices.