These temporary tattoos power electronics with your sweat

Researchers at the University of California-San Diego report that they have developed a sensor in the form of a temporary tattoo that not only measures exercise progress, but can harvest energy from sweat to power small electrical devises. (The American Chemical Society)

In the  future, sensors placed in a temporary tattoo – or even inside your underwear – could use your sweat to power small electronic devices. The tiny, cheap biobatteries can harvest enough power to power wristwatches and LED lights. Future designs could make bulky batteries on wearable devices a thing of the past.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego reported on their biobatteries at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. “Usually with wearable devices, you require a big battery,” Joseph Wang, distinguished professor of nanoengineering and head of the research team said. But these tiny temporary tattoos present an alternative.

The battery uses lactic acid to produce electricity. (Joseph Wang)
The battery uses lactic acid to produce electricity. (Joseph Wang)

The device runs on lactic acid, which is produced by the body during strenuous physical activity. In fact, the tattoos were initially designed as a diagnostic tool: Certain medical conditions can cause unusually high levels of lactic acid in sweat, and previous testing required doctors to collect blood samples throughout an exercise session. The sensors on the new device contain an enzyme that pulls electrons from lactic acid, producing a weak electrical charge that doctors can measure.

Unfortunately, harvesting this power isn’t the most consistent way to power a device. In fact, test subjects who were less fit produced more lactic acid than their athletic counterparts, and therefore made more electrical power as well. And even on the sweatiest participants, who produced 70 microWatts of power per square centimeter of skin, the tiny electrodes could only store around 4 microWatts. It would take 10 microWatts to power a basic watch. But Wang doesn’t think that storing enough electricity to power cellphones and other “smart” devices is an inconceivable goal.

In addition to being printed on tattoo transfer paper, the sensors could be placed inside of textiles “like a patch, or even in underwear,” Wang said. The current tattoo version can be used for 10-12 hours, and costs just a few cents to make. It could be awhile before your day-to-day sweating can power your personal electronics, but a biobattery that powers your watch (or keeps your cellphone from dying while you're out for a vigorous run) might not be far off.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 12