Researchers have found a way to create wearable patches than can sense harmful ultraviolet radiation and toxic gases.

In a study published in the journal Small, researchers from RMIT University detailed how they made skin patches that are discreet enough to be worn or incorporated into clothing in order to detect UV radiation and dangerous gases wherever an individual goes. Given how the patches work, they are seen to be of great use in industrial applications where detecting toxic gases can be a matter of life and death.

"Hydrogen leaks can lead to explosions as happened with the Hindenburg disaster and nitrogen dioxide is a major contributor," explained Dr. Madhu Bhaskaran, the project's leader and co-leader for the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT.

Bhaskaran added that the ability to monitor dangerous gases in coal-fired power stations and production facilities offers early warnings for explosions while detecting nitrogen dioxide can be used to keep track of pollution levels in major cities.

Detecting harmful UV radiation, on the other hand, is beneficial because it warns people of exposure levels that can trigger melanoma.

The smart skin that the RMIT researchers developed functions a lot like a nicotine patch, worn on the skin. In the future, researchers may be able to hook up the sensor-filled patches to electronic devices to provide continuous monitoring of UV levels and harmful gases.

"The ability to operate electronic devices under various mechanically stressed states can provide a set of unique functionalities that are beyond the capabilities of conventional rigid electronics," said the researchers.

To detect levels of UV radiation, the researchers turned to zinc oxide, a fine powder commonly used as an ingredient in sunscreens. A sensing material was then formed out of a layer of zinc oxide made up of very thin coatings more than a hundred times thinner than one sheet of paper.

The zinc oxide layer was formed in such a way that it features micro tectonics, a plate-like structure wherein plates slide over each other, much like how geological plates act, imparting high sensitivity as well as the ability for devices to flex and bend.

Although highly useful, the sensors are cheap to produce and highly durable, increasing the smart skin's chances of being used every day.

Sharath Sriram, Hussein Nili, Sumeet Walia, Eike Zeller and Philipp Gutruf also contributed to the study.

Photo: Reilly Butler | Flickr

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