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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Robot Underwear

Underwear manufacturers and NanoEngineers now have something in common—they print useful things on the inside elastic waistbands of underwear.

Underwear makers print size, country of make, and care instructions. NanoEngineers print sensors that report biological signals gathered through monitoring sweat.

These printed sensors will be integrated into self-contained, autonomous “hospital-on-a-chip” systems that use these biomarker readings to make diagnoses. Smart materials will then administer drugs held in reservoirs embedded in the clothing—all without any human intervention.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research is funding nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang to lead this research project, and soldiers in the field will likely be the first to benefit. Related technologies, however, could eventually help doctors, nurses and caretakers keep closer tabs on the health of patients both in hospitals and at home.

In a new peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Analyst, engineers found that electrodes printed on elastic underwear waistbands retained their chemical-sensing abilities even after engineers stretched, folded and pulled at the sensors.

“By putting the electrodes on the underwear, we didn’t plan to make it so sexy,” Wang says. “Our approach is scientific. The waistband of the underwear gives you the best contact with the skin.”

—Daniel Kane