Researchers sweat the tiny details on GE sensor project

Project based at Niskayuna facility uses electronic patch to continuously analyze perspiration
Corporate Global Research scientist Azar Alizadeh speaks as GE R&D Materials Scientist Andrew Burns is monitored.
Corporate Global Research scientist Azar Alizadeh speaks as GE R&D Materials Scientist Andrew Burns is monitored.

NISKAYUNA — Amid all the scientists, engineers and tables of cutting-edge technology, there was an incongruous sight at the annual electronics symposium held last week at GE Global Research:

A shirtless man cranking away on his personal race bike atop a roller trainer, sweat rolling off his exposed skin and spattering the floor below him.

It wasn’t as out of place as it might seem, though. The rider was General Electric materials scientist Andrew Burns, and the small patch absorbing and analyzing the sweat on his lower back was a prototype GE sensor wirelessly feeding live updates on his body chemistry to a nearby screen. The measurements of the amount of sweat he’s shedding, and the amount of sodium and potassium it contains, can provide early warning of dehydration and other results of stress.

After 80 minutes crouched in the horizontal position, Burns’ back resembled bubble wrap, with perfectly round beads of sweat standing out in relief, growing until they collapsed from their own weight. A bit short of breath from explaining the patch while riding, he called a timeout before exhaustion set in. 

One of the patch’s real-world functions would be to tell the user (or the user’s supervisor) when it’s time to rehydrate or seek more advanced treatment for a more severe problem.

Before commercializing it, the GE researchers and their partners want to determine the different sets of circumstances and needs that might be presented by users as varied as athletes, firefighters and soldiers.

GE’s multiyear development effort seeks a way to remotely monitor patient health and safeguard people doing physically stressful work before their bodies become dangerously dehydrated.

The second-generation sweat patch Burns was wearing has completed field tests on cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy and is now being tested by student athletes at the University of Connecticut, said Azar Alizadeh, leader of the research project. Later this autumn, she said, Global Research will begin testing a prototype of a sensor that monitors the heart rate, respiration, body temperature and other vital signs. The next step is a patch that will analyze interstitial fluids in cells to measure biochemicals such as cortisol and lactate and provide a more comprehensive snapshot of the wearer’s health.

“Right now I think we are in a critical stage of the program,” Alizadeh said. “One, we are doing the fabrication of the devices in collaboration with small manufacturing partners; the second thing, we are in the middle of a clinical trial with our colleagues at the University of Connecticut.”

The current version of the sweat patch uses a wick to pull sweat past sensors that analyze it, then send the resulting data to a monitor through a bluetooth link; it’s smaller, lighter and more comfortable than the original. Most people wearing it would get exhausted before the patch gets saturated, in about two or three hours, but the patch could be made larger if need be. With no moving parts, it uses a minuscule amount of electricity, about 15 milliwatts. For perspective, 1,667 patches would use about as much power combined as just one of the light bulbs in the GE sign at the foot of Erie Boulevard.

Burns said it’s being tested on the lower back because that’s one of the sweatiest areas of the body and also an area with some of the least-sensitive skin.

The project is a collaboration of GE Global Research, Binghamton University and NextFlex, a national public-private consortium of flexible hybrid electronics researchers and manufacturers. Eight GE researchers and three Binghamton graduate students are working on it, and Empire State Development is providing financial support.

Mark D. Poliks, an engineering professor and director of NextFlex’s Center of Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing at Binghamton University, said the project has helped students learn about the importance of precision and consistency in manufacturing — the sweat patch is being fabricated in batches of one to two dozen for the field testing phase.

Burns, who holds a dozen patents and a doctoral degree, can hop off his bike for rest and rehydration whenever he likes, even if he’s zipping down the road rather than riding in place as a living static display. 

The future potential of the patch adhered to his lower back Thursday morning is to help people who don’t have that option, who are in situations of greater stress or who have chronic health problems, Alizadeh said.

Quick, easy, remote monitoring of vital signs and biochemistry would better serve those with health risks, she said.

“In the future, a doctor could capture all your vitals, key biochemical markers and other important health indicators in a single patch,” she explained. “Your annual checkout could turn into a daily or weekly one, which allows doctors and patients to more closely monitor their health.”

The Electronics Packaging Symposium held Thursday and Friday at the River Road headquarters of GE Global Research — the 31st presented by GE and Binghamton University — drew 300-plus attendees, 43 student exhibitors and 34 corporate exhibitors … none of them sweating buckets while cranking away on a featherweight Cervelo bicycle.

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