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New Microchip Improves Future of Self-Powered Wearable Technology

Energy from your body heat and motion could fuel the future of preventive health care.

ASSIST microchipU.Va.’s self-powering ASSIST microchip and the small circuit board where it is housed.Photo by Sanjay Suchak / University CommunicationsResearchers at the University of Virginia are developing a low-power microchip that can support on-body, real-time health monitoring. By harvesting all its needed energy from sources like body heat, motion and sunlight, the chip will provide an extremely compact, long-lasting power source for body metric sensors.

U.Va.’s chip development is part of a larger nanotechnology collaboration known as the ASSIST Center (the Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies). Headquartered at North Carolina State University, the ASSIST Center’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and includes multiple partner universities.

“The main application that we’re targeting in the center right now is childhood asthma,” said ASSIST Associate Director for Translational Research John Lach, who chairs U.Va.’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

ASSIST is developing sensors that will work together with U.Va.’s microchip to detect changes in the body as well as environmental factors that could signal an impending asthma attack.

“We’re monitoring the person and because of that we can see the early stages of asthma exasperation and make the appropriate notifications. At the same time, we’re also monitoring the environment so we can detect what kinds of environmental exposures cause their asthma events,” Lach said. “From there, we can develop the models that allow us to intervene before an asthma event has even started.”

The data collected from asthma monitoring tests will help researchers gauge the type of demands that will be placed on their sensor-chip system, but asthma is not the only application for ASSIST technology.

“As the center continues, we plan to continue extending the platform to more sensing modes – acoustic sensing of wheezing, blood pressure, biochemical markers, particulate counts and so on,” said Ben Calhoun, ASSIST site director and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

While some existing wearable health monitors have these capabilities, the ASSIST project is one of the first to consolidate them on a nanoscale. U.Va.’s contribution of a high-functioning, ultra-low-power microchip will allow the ASSIST team to keep their sensory devices small without the hindrances of larger batteries or communication devices.

The microchip’s most difficult task is regulating the flow of energy it takes in from the user and his or her environment. Since available body heat, motion and sunlight can fluctuate throughout the day, the chip has to adapt its function and power consumption to maintain continuous operation.

In addition to acting as a power source, the microchip also serves as a transceiver. It collects data from the attached sensors and then sends it wirelessly to another designated device, such as a user’s smartphone.

“We hope our chip will inspire a new approach to wireless sensing that leverages self-powered hardware,” Calhoun said.

The ASSIST effort is just one of the wearable technology projects that are springing up around Grounds. Here are a few other exciting devices in the works:

TEMPO

BESI

A Tumor-Fighting Skullcap

The Artificial Pancreas