A hard sell for soft sensors to pick up on the body’s changes

Research Lives: Prof of materials and sensor science at Dublin City University Dermot Diamond, principal investigator with Insight Centre for Data Analytics

You have worked on intriguing projects, like clothes that change in response to your body heat, sensors that can sit in the environment for ages and even a watch to measure your sweat. What is behind that?

Over the years we have looked at lots of materials, for example, a soft gel or a polymer that responds in the presence of a stimulus. Maybe it expands or contracts when the temperature changes, or exposure to a certain chemical or light might make it change colour. Then we use those materials to build sensors that can pick up signals from the human body or from the environment – devices that can monitor situations over time and alert us to changes.

How would that work for the environment?

You might want a low-power sensor to sit in a body of water and monitor pollution, or in the case of landfills a sensor located in situ could respond to a build-up of gas. We have developed the underlying technologies for those and plenty of others.


And what kinds of measurements are you looking to take from the body?

Lots – it’s easy to track things like the number of steps we take or heartbeat, you can do that with your phone, but it is much harder to track the body’s biochemistry. So we are building non-invasive sensors to pick up signals in bodily fluids like sweat – in the sweat watch – and even the fluid in the eye can tell us a lot about things like blood sugar, so we are looking to measure it with a chemical sensor on a contact lens.

How will your research make it easier to capture these biological signals?

One of our latest discoveries is a way to make tiny microfluidic chips using soft materials, and these are much more compatible with biological systems like the human body compared to the hard materials that these chips are usually made from. We have found a way to use light to “3D-print” tiny channels in a soft sensor chip and I think this is huge, as it is going to open up a lot more possibilities for sensors to track your biochemistry non-invasively in wearable devices.

What do you do when you are not discovering new material processes and building sensors?

I play the fiddle. I grew up in Belfast playing traditional music – imagine being a teen in Belfast in the 1970s walking around with a fiddle and a banjo case! I still play a lot of traditional music sessions, particularly in Donegal, and there's a group of us who play Bluegrass and country music in The Cobblestone pub in Dublin each Saturday afternoon.

Finally, what would you like to see in the future of research?

I think more social science and humanities need to be integrated into science and technology projects, especially the game-changing flagship projects that Europe is funding now.

I am a co-chair of the advisory group for the EU Future and Emerging Technologies programme, and in my opinion, it is essential to involve experts from social science and humanities to help to frame the questions we look at in science and tech and engineering so that the projects we fund using taxpayers’ money have a real societal impact, and we can explain that impact to the people who stand to benefit.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation