Doctors might get even better at detecting tumors in breast cancer patients early, thanks to pressure-sensitive rubber gloves that supercharge their sense of touch. But the sensors that power those gloves could be useful in all kinds of non-medical scenarios, too.
Getting a regular exam from your doctor is still one of the most effective ways of catching the signs of breast cancer early, but it’s easy to miss the telltale hardness of a tumor when a rubber surgical glove is involved. That’s why a team of researchers led by Dr. Sungwon Lee and Professor Takao Someya of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering has developed a new type of pressure sensor which is thin and resilient enough to fit into a glove.
Pressure sensors flexible enough to mold themselves to the contours of a human hand have been available for awhile now, but they can’t handle bending, twisting, or wrinkling while still giving accurate measurements. Using organic transistors made of carbon nanontubes, graphene, carbon, and oxygen, the University of Tokyo team was able to address this problem, creating a transparent sensor just 8 micrometers thick—one-fifth the thickness of a human hair—that can measure pressure in 144 places at once. In conjunction with the right software, these sensors could be used in standard surgical gloves to help doctors detect tumors by touch alone.
But according to the team, this same technology has just as much potential for implantable and wearable devices. Sadly, they didn’t go as far as to name them, but it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. Just a few uses that come to mind include a smart tattoo that could also function as a touchpad, touch sensitive clothing that can go through the wash, or pressure-sensing VR gloves as thin as the ones you use to do the dishes that can detect how you’re moving your fingers. Saving lives might be just the start for this technology.