Self-powered devices could help people monitor health

North Carolina State University is leading a nanotechnology research effort to create self-powered health monitoring sensors and devices to help people monitor their health and understand how the surrounding environment affects it.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) is a joint effort between NC State and partner institutions Florida International University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia.

The centre, funded by an initial five-year $18.5m (£11.5m) grant from NSF, also includes five affiliated universities and approximately 30 industry partners in its global research consortium.

ASSIST researchers will develop sensors that could be worn on the chest or wrist, as a cap that fits over a tooth, or in other ways depending on the biological system that’s being monitored.

According to NC State, wireless health monitoring is a fast-growing industry, but the self-powered technology being developed by ASSIST means that changing and recharging batteries on current devices could be eradicated.

By using nanomaterials and nanostructures, and thermoelectric and piezoelectric materials that use body heat and motion, respectively, as power sources, ASSIST researchers want to make devices that operate on the smallest amounts of energy.

‘Currently there are many devices out there that monitor health in different ways,’ said Dr Veena Misra, the centre’s director and professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. ‘What’s unique about our technologies is the fact that they are powered by the human body, so they don’t require battery charging.’

The centre’s headquarters will be housed in the Larry K Monteith Engineering Research Center on NC State’s Centennial Campus. There, ASSIST researchers will develop thermoelectric materials that harvest body heat and new nanosensors that gather health information from the body such as heart rates, oxygen levels and respiration data. In addition, the researchers will find ways to package the technology developed by the centre into wearable devices.

Researchers at partner institution Penn State will create new piezoelectric materials and energy-efficient transistors. The team from the University of Virginia will develop ways to make the systems work on very small amounts of power, while the group from Florida International University will create sensors that gather biochemical signals from the body, such as stress levels.

The results of that work, coupled with low-power radios developed by the University of Michigan, will be used to process and transmit health data gathered by the sensors to computers and consumer devices, such as mobile phones.