Get ready for ‘spider web’ sensors on your skin?

They’re 50 times smaller than a hair on your body, look like tiny strands of spider silk and could fundamentally change how humans interact with the world around them.

That’s because these strands aren’t destined to become clothing or some other textile. Instead, they’re the fabric of a prototype biosensor developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge.

And these biosensors could be spun around or printed into any number of biological mediums – basically, the tissue of a human or plant.

This ‘biology-machine’ interface described by the Cambridge group means a new generation of wearables to monitor human health could be just around the corner.

“If you want to accurately sense anything on a biological surface like skin or a leaf, the interface between the device and the surface is vital,” said Yan Yan Shery Huang, a bioengineer in Cambridge’s engineering department.

“We also want bioelectronics that are completely imperceptible to the user, so they don’t in any way interfere with how the user interacts with the world, and we want them to be sustainable and low waste.”

That imperceptibility is achieved through the microscopic dimensions of the ‘silk’. It’s about twice the thickness of a human red blood cell.

So small in fact that one of the silk strands was printed onto a dandelion seed without deforming its structure.

It reportedly also conforms to human skin when printed onto the surface without blocking pores. If realised, this would make the material preferable to sensors currently printed onto plastic film or that block touch sensation.

Although polymers are still used in the manufacturing process, the research group says their manufacturing method is more sustainable and produces “minimal waste and emissions” than current biosensor technologies.

“Using our simple fabrication technique, we can put sensors almost anywhere and repair them where and when they need it, without needing a big printing machine or a centralised manufacturing facility,” says Huang.

The results of the study are published in the journal Nature Electronics.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.