Why you should care

One day soon, your T-shirt might be telling you it’s time to get out of the sun. 

Rejoice, asthmatics, paranoiacs and even the merely sun-conscious! Soon there may be a wearable just for you.

Australian engineers are working on patches that can detect all sorts of environmental hazards, like UV radiation and toxic gas. Stretchy and transparent, the sensors would stick to the skin, like a nicotine patch, or be sewn into clothing. From there, they’d send you a smartphone alert to seek shade when the sun’s UV rays are too strong or when pollution levels get too high. And then the data could be uploaded to a cloud-based monitoring system to flag environmental no-go zones. “We’ve shown in the lab they work,” says Philipp Gutruf, who led the research at RMIT University in Melbourne.

The invention could save lives from catastrophic hydrogen explosions that sometimes occur in mines and power plants.

Besides potentially preventing skin cancer, lung cancer, asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, the invention could save lives from gas leaks that sometimes occur in mines and power plants, the RMIT University engineers say. Although such places already have portable gas detection systems, they’re clunky — about the size of a shoe box. A sensor stitched into workers’ uniforms would be more user friendly. And by using zinc oxide, which can detect gas at room temperature, the Australian engineers got a side benefit: The metal can measure UV radiation too.

The first test: the sensor’s ability to detect hydrogen — a colorless, odorless gas that can explode if left to leak — and nitrogen dioxide, a brownish gas that contributes to smog. The engineers then measured its resistance to an electric current. As expected, the sensor’s resistance changed depending on whether it detected hydrogen, nitrogen dioxide or UV light. What’s more, the stretchy sensor beat out its stiff counterparts in speed and sensitivity.

But the researchers still have far to go, says David Carroll, a materials physicist at Wake Forest University. For example, they tested the sensor’s ability to detect only high levels of UV, hydrogen and nitrogen dioxide, although much smaller amounts also pose a risk. “This is just a first step,” Carroll says. Gutruf acknowledges that it’s early days yet, but predicts stretchy electronics to hit the market within the next five years, and that pretty much anyone will be able to afford his group’s sensor (although he’s not exactly sure how much it will cost).

Meanwhile, we’ll just have to put up with those UV-detecting wearables currently on the market — wristbands and stiff clips — before it’s time to say, Move over, FitBit.

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