Scientists Create Health Sensors 50 Times Thinner Than Human Hair

Scientists Create Health Sensors 50 Times Thinner Than Human Hair

Australian National University (ANU) scientists have developed ultra-small optical sensors poised to advance the wearable medical device market. Using these devices, doctors can diagnose ailments in real time.

"This exciting invention shows that we are on the cusp of designing the next generation of wearable devices that will help people to stay well for longer and lead better lives," says Associate Professor Antonio Tricoli, leader of the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at the ANU Research School of Engineering.  

According to Dr. Tricoli, the sensors are thinner than a human hair by a factor of 50.

"These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health," says Dr. Tricoli. “A wearable medical diagnostic device using our optical sensors may one day eliminate the need for blood tests and many other invasive procedures.”

How do these tiny devices allow real-time health monitoring? The sensors are able to measure metabolites, which are very minute concentrations of gases excreted through the skin and breath.

The sensors can detect metabolites in smaller quantities than current medical wearables, and can function at room temperature, according to Ph.D. scholar Zelio Fusco, who works in Dr. Tricoli's lab.

"You could simply use a pulse of light to track these biomarkers of disease—there'd be no need for batteries, wires, or large and expensive lab equipment," says Dr. Tricoli.

Co-researcher Dr. Mohsen Rahmani provides insight as to how the sensors can detect gas molecules at very low concentrations. This unique property is possible thanks to the combination of small gold nanostructures and semiconductors.

Reaching beyond the health industry, the design can flaunt its versatility within other applications, including farming and space exploration.

"As the sensors are ultra-small and ultra-light, they could potentially be fitted to micro-satellites or tiny spacecraft that could help in the hunt for life on distant planets, by telling us if there are trace organic molecules of living organisms on distant planets," says Dr. Rahmani.

The research is detailed in the article, “Nanostructured Dielectric Fractals on Resonant Plasmonic Metasurfaces for Selective and Sensitive Optical Sensing of Volatile Compounds,” published in Advanced Materials.

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