Scientists develop revolutionary electronic spider silk sensors

Researchers have developed a method to make adaptive and eco-friendly sensors that can be directly and imperceptibly printed onto a wide range of biological surfaces, whether that's a finger or a flower petal. Credit: University of Cambridge.

A new era for health and environmental monitoring.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed an innovative method to create adaptive and eco-friendly sensors that can be printed directly onto various biological surfaces, including human skin and flower petals.

This breakthrough, inspired by the properties of spider silk, opens up new possibilities in health monitoring, virtual reality, electronic textiles, and environmental monitoring.

The sensors, made from a material called PEDOT, along with hyaluronic acid and polyethylene oxide, are extremely lightweight and thin—at least 50 times smaller than a human hair. They are so delicate that they can be printed onto a dandelion seedhead without damaging it.

When applied to human skin, these sensors conform perfectly, allowing sweat pores to remain exposed, making them virtually undetectable to the wearer.

This new method addresses the limitations of existing wearable technologies, such as smartwatches, which can be uncomfortable and interfere with the skin’s natural sensations.

Unlike traditional flexible electronics that are often printed on plastic films, these new sensors are gas-permeable and do not inhibit the skin’s ability to breathe.

Professor Yan Yan Shery Huang, who led the research, explains the significance: “To accurately sense anything on a biological surface like skin or a leaf, the interface between the device and the surface is crucial.

We aim for bioelectronics that are completely imperceptible to the user, so they do not interfere with normal interactions, and we want them to be sustainable and low waste.”

The research team developed a technique called orbital spinning to produce these high-performance fibers from a water-based solution at room temperature. This process allows the fibers to adapt to various shapes and sizes, from human fingertips to the intricate structure of a dandelion. The fibers’ “spinnability” is controlled during production, ensuring they can morph to living surfaces, including microstructures like fingerprints.

Tests have shown that these bioelectronic fibers provide high-quality sensor performance while remaining undetectable to the user. The sensors can be printed almost anywhere, repaired as needed, and washed away when they are no longer useful, generating less than a milligram of waste. In comparison, a typical load of laundry produces between 600 and 1,500 milligrams of fiber waste.

First author Andy Wang highlights the sustainability of the method: “Our spinning approach allows the bioelectronic fibers to follow the anatomy of different shapes without the need for image recognition. It’s a much easier way to produce large area sensors and opens up new possibilities for sustainable electronics.”

The new sensors could revolutionize continuous health monitoring, enhance the realism in gaming and virtual reality, and provide innovative solutions in fields like precision agriculture and environmental monitoring. The technology is being commercialized with the help of Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialization arm.

In the future, the researchers aim to incorporate other functional materials into this fiber printing method, potentially creating integrated fiber sensors with capabilities for display, computation, and energy conversion. This breakthrough represents a significant step towards more sustainable and versatile electronic devices.