Next-generation wearable technologies
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape and courtesy of MCET website, Sagar Doshi and Erik Thostenson | Photo illustration by Joy Smoker December 19, 2023
UD engineers are researching and refining innovative nanomaterial-based sensors for human health applications
From keeping us warm and dry during a downpour to showcasing our Blue Hen spirit at Homecoming, clothing is essential for our comfort, protection and self-expression. But what if our clothing could do even more — what if, for example, our clothes could collect real-time data and provide feedback that could aid our recovery after an accident or surgery, or monitor our form or body posture during exercise and sports to prevent injury?
At the University of Delaware, a team of researchers from the College of Engineering has developed nanomaterial sensors that can measure precise changes in human movement while being both comfortable and cost effective. Now, thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) program, the team will continue studying these innovative materials while collaborating with industry partners to explore new commercial opportunities in health-related applications.
This project is led by Erik Thostenson, professor of mechanical engineering, in collaboration with co-investigators Sagar Doshi, associate scientist in UD’s Center for Composite Materials (CCM), and Jill Higginson, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, the College of Engineering associate dean for Graduate and Post Graduate Education, and director of UD’s Institute for Engineering Driven Health (EDH).
Thostenson has been working on these unique carbon nanotube-based sensors for more than 15 years. In 2019, he and Doshi, who earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering while working in Thostenson’s lab, co-founded MCET Technologies, a start-up focused on developing unique sensors for applications that range from structural health monitoring of infrastructure to monitoring of human motion.
Doshi and Thostenson first collaborated with Higginson through a Delaware INBRE-funded pilot project. The goal of that study was to determine how well Thostenson’s nanomaterial-based sensors could collect data on the kinetics and kinematics of human movement, which typically requires patients to be in a lab with advanced motion capture and instrumented treadmills. The results of that pilot project spurred a continued collaboration between Thostenson, Higginson and Doshi that became the foundation of the Unidel-supported project called Henswear.
In their current form, these nanomaterial sensors are incredibly thin, flexible and sensitive to changes in both pressure and angle. The sensors can either be slipped into existing garments or can be coated directly onto everyday fabrics, all for less than $1 per gram of material.
Now, thanks to this new two-year grant from NSF, the researchers will be able to conduct additional research to validate these sensors and compare the quality of the data they generate to lab-based movement assessments. This will include further evaluations of sensor response, developing calibration protocols and obtaining new estimates of sensor efficacy.
“In Professor Higginson's lab, we have tools that can measure very specific parameters about the way we walk, such as if there are any challenges in our gait or range of motion. What we are trying to do with these sensors is to be able to measure some of those key criteria outside of a lab and in a person's natural environment — like at their home or workplace,” Doshi said.
“This research will be more focused on exercise and range of motion, which is data that can help clinicians track whether a patient is compliant with their therapy. But in order for that to work, the processing of the materials needs to be perfected and done at scale — so we know that we can wash these textiles and they will still work, for example. So, we’ll also have ongoing investigations into the material properties thanks to this grant,” Higginson added.
From fundamental research to real-world applications
The researchers will also be working with UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP) and an industry mentor to find the best market and application for their technology.
“We understand the sensor and the sensing mechanism, and now we will be working on translating it to an application,” Thostenson said. “That means understanding sensor repeatability, human garment interaction, and working with industry partners to learn about potential applications, what the customer’s needs are, and where this technology could be inserted.”
To do this, the team will be working with Brian Pryor, who has expertise in technology commercialization and medical devices. As their project mentor, Pryor will help the team gather information and insights on potential use cases and learn more about customer and stakeholder needs. The researchers will also participate in the NSF I-Corps National Teams program.
When asked about the potential impacts of their work, Doshi said that he is excited about the possibility for this research to impact the lives of others.
“If we can potentially help someone heal or get back to full fitness faster, that’s real impact that you can see,” he said.
“It’s definitely the human factor,” Higginson said about what she is looking forward to through this project. “Whether it's making the fitness tracker of the future, or something that you can wear when you're recovering from injury, there's a lot of potential different applications.”
Michael Blaustein, OEIP’s director of commercialization strategy, has been working with Thostenson’s nanomaterial sensor portfolio for many years and is impressed with how well the research team have been able to leverage their basic research into several applications thus far.
“From measuring distortions in infrastructure to studying someone’s gait, the potential of these nanosensors really showcases the creativity of the team, not just in terms of the research discovery they’ve made but also in the range of downstream applications,” he said.
“This work is a prime example of the kind of long and fruitful partnership between our faculty and OEIP that we love to see,” added OEIP technology transfer associate Saurabhi Satam. “The researchers contacted us at the right time and in the right stage of their research so that we could work together and protect their work in the broadest way possible.”
“It’s a really exciting interdisciplinary collaboration,” added Thostenson about the project and the continued partnership between CCM, one of UD’s oldest research centers that will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024, and EDH, one of its newest. “It's an interesting synergy between materials research and health research, and it’s great to be able to advance these sensors out of the lab and put them on people.