Latex gloves may one day incorporate a bendable pressure sensor to help the doctors check women for breast cancer, without having to use X-rays, a new study suggests.
Takao Someya, senior author of the study and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Tokyo, said that with the new technology, doctors could rely mostly on their tactile feeling to figure out whether the patient has cancer.
In order to work well, the sensors have to be soft because human bodies are also generally soft, the researchers explained.
Sungwon Lee, lead author of the study who also works at the University of Tokyo, said that a lot of groups are currently trying to develop flexible sensors that measure pressure, but they are too sensitive to distortion – which means that they might not differentiate their own bending from the pressure variations in the objects they measure.
The new ultrasensitive transparent pressure sensor is made of composite fibers containing grapheme – they contain carbon nanotubes that are just a few nanometres in diameter, and carbon sheets that are only one atom thick.
The composite fibers, which are three hundred to seven hundred nanometres wide, have been embedded with elastic plastic sheets that are also thin, light, and transparent, researchers said.
Sensor capabilities do not change even when the device is distorted to an extreme degree, because the nanofibers are able to shift around.
According to Lee, the device managed to detect small pressure changes when wrapped around an artificial blood vessel filed with water. It could also determine how fast the pressure changed, he explained. In another experiment, the sensor measured the pressure of the soft 3D surface of a balloon.
In the future, pressure-sensitive gloves could potentially replace mammography to locate potential breast tumours, although it is currently too early to say that for sure, the researchers noted. Someya also said that ultrasensitive transparent pressure sensors could become a great alternative mammography, because they would not require exposure to radiation.
Currently, there are no pressure sensors that work accurately once they are bent. The next step is to design sensors that are able to detect pressure even when they are stretched, the researchers said.
The new findings were published on Monday (Jan. 25) in the online journal Nature Nanotechnology.
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