Tattoos Have Been Normal for Years. They're on the Verge of Their Next Evolution: Becoming Biosensors

The rise of body ink has had a surprising impact on the future of biotechnology.

The next evolution of tattoos is to become biosensors
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Pablo Martínez-Juarez

Tattoos stopped being a hidden works of art a good while ago. In fact, they're now so popular they're practically mainstream. However, tattoos are also far more than just pieces of art: They're turning into pieces of technology.

The best wearable. Turkish researchers have created nanotattoos capable of transmitting passive wireless communications that don’t require implants, wires, or external power sources. The inventors called their creation the BNTS, which stands for backscattering-based nanotattoo sensor.

In particular, this technology could monitor and send biometric information to devices like smartphones.

Two-ink tattoo. Researchers created this smart tattoo using two kinds of ink. One is black and made of graphene aerogel, which is conductive. The other is white and made of zinc oxide and nanowires. The black ink is the base, while the white ink is the top layer.

They injected the two nano tattoo inks simultaneously but through different needles and published their results in IEEE Electron Device Letters.

How does it work? Its developers explain that the technology uses ambient backscattering. They compare it to radio frequency identification (RFID) systems, but with a higher capacity of usable frequencies, between 900 megahertz and 2.45 GHz.

“When the painted tag receives the radio frequency (RF) signals, it reflects some of the signals to establish an up-link with the smartphone reader while the smartphone establishes a down-link with the tag,” the authors explain. Thus, through these connections, a phone can monitor the tattoo and process the compiled information.

What could we use them for? These designs could help people monitor their health and there are plenty of use cases. Other functional tattoo developments include tattoos that can monitor blood glucose or albumin levels to, for example, prevent problems associated with diabetes.

Likewise, U.S. researchers recently created a system similar to nanotattoos, also made with graphene, capable of constantly monitoring blood pressure.

An autonomous tattoo. One of the significant advances of the new mechanism is that it can generate electrical signals. It does this through piezoelectric activity, which makes it possible to produce electrical currents through changes in pressure, in this case, caused by the tattoo’s deformation by the skin’s movement.

Another challenge in developing this type of device is converting graphene into an antenna for biosensors.

Small steps forward. Scientists are developing small, self-powered biosensors that can monitor health cheaply and in real-time. Good health monitoring helps prevent diseases and risky situations, especially since non-communicable diseases are becoming more common. However, based on the first iterations of this technology, there’s still much room for improvement when it comes to aesthetics.

Image | Andrej Lišakov

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