WPI: Bringing Innovations in Flexible Hybrid Electronics to Light

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WPI
Thursday, September 26, 2019

New collaborative research projects and facilities will make WPI a leader at the intersection of flexible hybrid electronics, photonics, and medical devices

As a founding member of the NextFlex Massachusetts Node, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) understands the value of collaboration for advancing the development and manufacturing of Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE).

At WPI, a purpose-driven community of educators and researchers, and the global leader in project-based learning, faculty and student researchers are working across disciplines and with partners in diverse sectors to create products that leverage both FHE and integrated photonics technology to offer increased efficiency and comfort. They are also tapping into innovative collaborative facilities hosted on the WPI campus that are making an impact statewide.

Transforming Patient Care with Flexible Medical Devices

One area in which WPI researchers aim to use FHE technology is healthcare, as they seek to build medical products that are not only comfortable but also have the potential to save lives. 

For example, Ulkuhan Guler, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing a wearable wireless sensor that can replace the bulky equipment hospitals use to monitor oxygen levels in infants, enabling infants recovering from illnesses to be comfortably monitored at home.

So far, Guler and her team have made a sensor that effectively relays information wirelessly, but they are several steps away from making it flexible.

As Guler’s research assistant Ian Costanzo explains, “We started by using discrete off-the-shelf components to show that the sensing mechanism works. Next, we will develop a small custom integrated circuit and explore flexible materials that the patch can be made out of.”

Along similar lines, John McNeill, dean of the School of Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering, is creating a sensor that can be worn by bedridden patients to detect pressure and prevent the formation of pressure ulcers. He has built a prototype that uses a flexible PCB substrate and hopes to integrate additional flexible components.

“The patch will be more comfortable if it is made of actual fabric,” says McNeill. “It would also be great to include a sensor made with fabric, and maybe flexible electronics or antennas.”

Collaborating On-Campus and Beyond

"WPI faculty and students are pursuing research in a range of areas of relevance to FHEs...NextFlex gives us the opportunity to partner with companies to apply this research to solving problems of relevance to the Department of Defense and the broader FHE ecosystem." - Pratap Rao, professor of mechanical engineering.

Guler, McNeill, and others don’t have to go far to find novel flexible parts for their sensors. Two more research teams on campus are working to build components that are not only flexible but also can function in photonic integrated circuits (PICs), circuits that use light instead of electrons to conduct electricity, leading to the creation of devices that operate with higher speed and lower power loss.

Wole Soboyejo, Provost, ad interim, and professor of mechanical engineering, does research on flexible organic solar cells and light-emitting diodes.

“I am very excited to see the strengthening of WPI’s research on PICs and FHEs for medical devices,” says Soboyejo. “This intersects very well with my research interests in the areas of flexible electronics, organic/perovskite light-emitting devices, and biomedical devices for cancer detection.”

Additionally, Pratap Rao, professor of mechanical engineering, is pioneering a new flexible photodiode that could be used for many purposes, including measuring oxygen pressure in the skin.

“Our group is researching new nanomaterials, and one of our goals is to make those nanomaterials into inks that can be printed and incorporated in flexible electronics, which will enable new devices with a wider range of applications,” says Rao.

WPI researchers will also be looking to external partners, including those from NextFlex, to help develop and integrate other flexible materials, such as antennas and power sources.  

As Costanzo notes, “Our team has a lot of experience designing integrated circuits, and others at WPI are creating some new interesting materials, but to put these pieces together we need assistance from others, such as academic or corporate groups partnering through NextFlex.”

McNeill concurs, stating, “NextFlex will make wearability and comfort much less of an issue and remove a lot of uncertainty about what could make this unsuitable.”

Rao adds, “WPI faculty and students are pursuing research in a range of areas of relevance to FHEs, including development of new thin and flexible functional materials and printing methods, design of integrated circuits, and development of novel devices. NextFlex gives us the opportunity to partner with companies to apply this research to solving problems of relevance to the Department of Defense and the broader FHE ecosystem.”

Accelerating Innovation through Unique Facilities

“This sandbox, open to partnering organizations, will enable rapid prototyping of sensor technologies that can be immediately piloted to advance medical and healthcare technologies.” – Douglas Petkie, WPI lead for LEAP @WPI/QCC

These research efforts will be supported by a variety of additional resources at WPI, including two collaborative centers that are located just one floor apart from each other—providing a unique opportunity for WPI researchers and partners to develop, prototype, and manufacture new wearable medical devices consisting of PICs and FHE.

The first is the Laboratory for Education & Application Prototypes facility (LEAP @WPI/QCC), which will launch this fall with the goal of spearheading research and training in integrated photonics manufacturing in central Massachusetts. It is run in collaboration with Quinsigamond Community College and is part of a broader network, the national American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics).

A lenseless Highspeed holographic imaging system for non-invasive diagnosis of inner ear injuries developed by Dr. Razavi and Professor Furlong.

 A lenseless Highspeed holographic imaging system for non-invasive diagnosis of inner ear injuries developed by Dr. Razavi and Professor Furlong.
 

LEAP @WPI/QCC will feature a range of equipment for prototyping both FHEs and PICs, including a nanoscale 3D printer that makes small optical components, a mask aligner for micro-scale fabrication, and an inkjet printer that prints conductive inks onto substrates.

Just one floor up from LEAP @WPI/QCC is PracticePoint at WPI, a membership-based alliance that allows researchers and companies to rapidly prototype and test a range of medical devices in realistic settings and use cases—with manufacturing capabilities.
 

PracticePoint Research Scientist Chris Nycz studies gait in the motion capture suite, part of the Home, Rehab, and Assistive Care Environment at PracticePoint. This is located alongside the Hospital Care Environment and the Manufacturing and Prototyping Space.

PracticePoint Research Scientist Chris Nycz studies gait in the motion capture suite, part of the Home, Rehab, and Assistive Care Environment at PracticePoint. This is located alongside the Hospital Care Environment and the Manufacturing and Prototyping Space.
 

PracticePoint currently contains an MRI, an operating room, and clinical care suites providing testing of medical devices in hospital care environments, as well as motion capture and residential care suites that enable testing of medical devices in home, rehabilitation, and assistive care environments. Plans are also in place to install a prototyping lab that will feature a machine shop, tools for electronics fabrication, and 3D printers.

“LEAP @WPI/QCC is synergistically co-located with PracticePoint,” says Douglas Petkie, professor of physics and the WPI lead for LEAP @WPI/QCC. “This sandbox, open to partnering organizations, will enable rapid prototyping of sensor technologies that can be immediately piloted to advance medical and healthcare technologies.”

Greg Fischer, professor of mechanical engineering and director of PracticePoint, adds, “The FHE and photonic device prototyping capabilities in LEAP @WPI/QCC will complement the prototyping and clinical testing capabilities in PracticePoint and allow our researchers and corporate members to develop a wider range of medical devices, including comfortable wearable sensors for personal health monitoring and exoskeletons to help the disabled. The co-location of LEAP @WPI/QCC and PracticePoint with their advanced manufacturing capabilities, diverse set of benchtop testing, and real-world clinical testbeds will accelerate innovation and increase our impact.”

“The co-location of LEAP @WPI/QCC and PracticePoint with their advanced manufacturing capabilities, diverse set of benchtop testing, and real-world clinical testbeds will accelerate innovation and increase our impact,” notes Greg Fischer, director of PracticePoint.

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To get in touch with research teams at WPI and inquire about opportunities for partnership, contact the Research Solutions Institute.

rsi@wpi.edu

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