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Bioengineers Create a New Class of Human-Powered Bioelectronics Using the Giant Magnetoelastic Effect


UC Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering bioengineers have developed a novel soft and flexible self-powered bioelectronic device that is both soft and flexible. When a person bends his or her elbow or takes a pulse on his or her wrist, the technology converts the movement into electricity, which can then be used to power wearable and implantable diagnostic sensors.


A soft and flexible system, as opposed to a rigid one, can exhibit the magnetoelastic effect, which is the change in the amount of magnetization a material experiences as a result of tiny magnets being constantly pushed together and pulled apart by mechanical pressure, according to the researchers. To demonstrate their concept, the team used microscopic magnets dispersed in a paper-thin silicone matrix to generate a magnetic field that changed in strength as the silicone matrix undulated, demonstrating that their theory is correct. Electricity is generated as the strength of the magnetic field shifts in different directions.


Nature Materials published a research study today (September 30, 2021) that details the discovery, the theoretical model that underpins the breakthrough, and the demonstration of the breakthrough. Nature magazine has also highlighted the findings of the study.


This discovery "opens up a new avenue for practical energy, sensing, and therapeutic technologies that are centered on the human body and that can be connected to the Internet of Things," said Jun Chen, the study's principal investigator and an assistant professor of bioengineering at UCLA Samueli. It is the fact that it allows people to stretch and move comfortably when the device is pressed against human skin that distinguishes it from other technologies. Additionally, because it relies on magnetism rather than electricity, humidity and our own sweat do not impair its effectiveness.


Using a platinum-catalyzed silicone polymer matrix and neodymium-iron-boron nanomagnets, Chen and his team were able to create a small, flexible magnetoelastic generator (about the size of a quarter) that could be used to generate electricity. Using a soft, stretchy silicone band, they attached the device to the elbow of a volunteer. Their findings showed that the magnetoelastic effect observed was four times greater than the effect observed in similar-sized setups with rigid metal alloys. This resulted in an electrical current density of 4.27 milliamperes per square centimeter being generated by the device, which is 10,000 times greater than the next best comparable technology.


Because the flexible magnetoelastic generator is so sensitive, it is capable of converting the electrical signals produced by human pulse waves into electrical signals and acting as a self-powered, water-resistant heart-rate monitor. The electricity generated can also be used to power other wearable devices, such as a sweat sensor or a thermometer, in a more environmentally friendly manner.


There have been ongoing efforts to develop wearable generators that harvest energy from human body movements and use it to power sensors and other devices, but such efforts have been hampered by a lack of practicality in their design. A rigid metal alloy with a magnetoelastic effect, for example, is incapable of bending sufficiently to compress against the skin and generate significant amounts of power for practical applications.


Other devices that rely on static electricity have a tendency to produce insufficient amounts of energy. It is also possible that their performance will suffer in humid conditions or when there is sweat on their skin. Some have attempted to encapsulate such devices in order to keep water out, but this reduces the effectiveness of their protection. The novel wearable magnetoelastic generators developed by the UCLA team, on the other hand, performed admirably even after being submerged in artificial perspiration for a week.

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