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Irish scientists mix silly putty with graphene to create ultra-sensitive health sensors

‘G-putty’ is said to be 100 times more receptive than a normal sensor and is able to detect the footsteps of small spiders.

Image: AMBER

AN EASIER WAY of measuring your health vitals has been discovered by Dublin-based scientists – by mixing together a children’s toy and a revolutionary new material.

Scientists at AMBER, a materials science research centre based in Trinity College Dublin, mixed a thin conductive material called graphene with children’s putty to be used as a sensor.

It claims to be 100 times more sensitive than average – and able to detect the footsteps of small spiders.

This relatively simple idea could potentially pave the way for new, inexpensive devices and diagnostics in medicine and other sectors.

Graphene is made up of very thin layers of carbon atoms which makes it a strong as well as flexible and very conductive material. It’s thought that the material could be used to charge phone batteries in a matter of seconds, and make electric cars and solar panels more effective.

Source: AMBER Centre/YouTube

Professor Jonathan Coleman from TCD and researcher Conor Boland, discovered that the electrical resistance of putty infused with graphene was extremely sensitive to the slightest deformation or impact.

They mounted the G-putty onto people’s chests and necks and used it to measure breathing, pulse and even blood pressure.

It showed unprecedented sensitivity as a sensor for strain and pressure, hundreds of times more sensitive than normal sensors. The G-putty also works as a very sensitive impact sensor, able to detect the footsteps of small spiders.

It is believed that this material will find applications in a range of medical devices.

Prof Coleman said, “What we are excited about is the unexpected behaviour we found when we added graphene to the polymer, a cross-linked polysilicone. This material is well known as the children’s toy silly putty.

“It is different from familiar materials in that it flows like a viscous liquid when deformed slowly but bounces like an elastic solid when thrown against a surface. When we added the graphene to the silly putty, it caused it to conduct electricity, but in a very unusual way.

“The electrical resistance of the G-putty was very sensitive to deformation with the resistance increasing sharply on even the slightest strain or impact. Unusually, the resistance slowly returned close to its original value as the putty self-healed over time.”

He continued, “While a common application has been to add graphene to plastics in order to improve the electrical, mechanical, thermal or barrier properties, the resultant composites have generally performed as expected without any great surprises.

“The behaviour we found with G-putty has not been found in any other composite material. This unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”

The limitations around the magic property graphene remain however – the production of the material is awkward and difficult (the first production of it involved putting selotape on a lump of graphite and peeling it off in order to get one single layer of atoms).

Although lead is fairly cheap, the production would make graphene very expensive to create and ‘package’ on mass scale – but is something scientists are constantly working to overcome.

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