New skin sensors collect health data, study reports

Body temperature map
Body temperature map. All temperatures were collected by skin sensors, and transmitted to a computer to generate an image. Credit: Han et al.

The era of health tracking is upon us. The ability to track details about our moment-to-moment health has grown exponentially in recent years, from Fitbits logging our sleep patterns and heart rates, to ‘Smart Pills,’ which transmit a signal from a microchip imbedded in a swallowable tablet to an iPhone in order to track compliance with a pill regimen. Recently, a research group working at Carle Hospital at the University of Illinois took the concept of health data to the next level by tracking body temperature and pressure in bedridden patients and sleep study patients. Instead of tracking data from one point, like the wrist, they collected data from the entire body, which is a progressive approach in health tracking technology.

The newly developed skin sensors are thin, soft, wireless, and made of silicon. They have been shown to adhere to the skin without causing irritation, and they are waterproof, so they can collect data even in the shower. In testing, the skin sensors were placed at various points over the whole body, creating a temperature-map and pressure-map of the wearer.

Skin sensors
Sensors placed on the back, and the back of the arms and legs to collect temperature and pressure data. Credit: Han et al.
Pressure map
Pressure map. Credit: Han et al.

Because they are wireless and battery-free, they can stay on a patient for long periods of time, and can easily travel with a patient between wards in a hospital, or from an intensive care facility to a nursing home. They can stay on during medical treatments and during physical therapy. They collect and transmit data to a computer every 3 seconds, so a continuous digital picture of temperature and pressure can be recreated online.

I personally don’t the idea of swallowing a microchip along with my medication, but this new study utilizing skin sensors has incredible implications for medicine. The study, published online in Science Translational Medicine in April 2018, explained that since body temperature naturally fluctuates between day and night, the sensors can be used to measure circadian rhythms. In this case, researchers tested the sensors in a sleep clinic.

The researchers also used the sensors to measure prolonged pressure on the body in bedridden patients. Pressure ulcers, also known as bed sores, are a concern for patients in long-term recovery who spend the majority of their time lying down. Bony areas of the body, like shoulder blades and the buttocks, can develop these bed sores, or irritations, from staying in one position too long. The skin sensors, strategically placed in high-risk areas for bed sores, can detect when the pressure reaches a harmful level.


Han, S., Kim, J., Won, S.M., Ma, Y., Kang, D., Xie, Z., … Rogers, J.A. (2018). Battery-free, wireless sensors for full-body pressure and temperature mapping. Science Translational Medicine, 20(435). [Published online 04 Apr 2018]. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aan4950.

Technology Exposed

Image from Zoopah
Image by Zoopah

How much energy do our technologies consume? Researchers from McMaster University answer this question in their study on the trends of global emissions and lifespan of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices and services.  They based their study on smart phones, tablets, displays, notebooks, desktops, and data centers.  Based on their current results, ICT infrastructures like data centers and communication networks are the largest contributor to energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Data centers emit 1314 to 3743 kg CO2-e/year (carbon dioxide equivalent) while they are in use. This is equivalent to 33% of the global greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) footprint by ICT devices in 2010. The average life span of data centers are ten years, and the servers attached to the centers last three to five years. Since the data centers are supporting the internet and telecommunication system, they are in constant use, resulting in higher energy consumption. In comparison, communication networks that encompass telecom operator networks, office networks, and customer premises access contribute to 28% of the global footprint in 2010. Combined, the information of energy consumption of data centers from 2007-2012 will increase by 12% in 2020.

Following data centers and communication networks of ICT greenhouse gas footprints, smart phones will contribute to 11% of energy in 2020, compared to 4% in 2010. Smart phones, specifically Apple IPhones in the study, have an average lifespan of 1.8 to 2 years. Based on the researchers’ model on absolute terms of GHGE footprints, it predicted a 730% increase in GHGE from 2010 to 2020. In 2020, smart phones will release 125 MT CO2-e into the environment. The increase of emissions is due to the short life span of these devices. Therefore, more phones need to be produced due to their ephemeral life span. Planned obsolesce is intentional in technological design, which contributes to a profitable business model for the phone manufactures and telecom industry.

In contrast to data centers, communication networks, and smart phones, the footprints of displays, notebooks, and desktops will decrease in 2020 due the transition to high phone usage.  Below, Figure 1 displays the change of GHGE by ICT category.

comparing global energy consumption in 2010 and 2020.
Figure 1: Data from Belhir and Elmeligi on the relative contribution of each Information Communication Technology categories in 2010 and 2020

Why do these numbers matter? Based on the Paris Agreement, 196 nations agreed to limit global warming below 2°C.  If the production of ICT devices and services continue as is, we will fall short on this commitment. In 2007, the global greenhouse gas emissions were at 1-1.6%; this number could exceed 14% worldwide by 2040 if we continue our current practices. More importantly, these would the global initiative to maintain the global temperature.

paris climate change
Image from WIRED

So, what now?  The researchers suggest that we should instill sustainable practices in the production and operations of data centers and communications through the use of renewable energies. Also, it will be important to raise awareness on global energy consumption from technology. This research provides incite how the environmental impacts of our technology. To meet our global initiative, it will be crucial to adapt a new method.

Source: Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi. Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018; 177: 448 DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239