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August 9, 2001

SMU RESEARCHERS RECEIVE GRANT TO DEVELOP "SMART SKIN"

DALLAS (SMU) -- Two engineering professors and a chemistry professor from Southern Methodist University are teaming up to develop a novel technology that has applications ranging from "smart wraps" that could monitor meat and vegetables for spoilage to "smart textiles" that could sense when a person has been exposed to harmful chemicals.

The technology involves embedding microelectronic devices such as thermometers or infrared detectors into a flexible substrate. The flexibility of this "smart skin" would allow it to be placed over surfaces such as fabric or machines.

"This could open up a whole world of flexible electronic devices based on distributed sensors," said Zeynep Celik-Butler, a professor of electrical engineering in the SMU School of Engineering.

Celik-Butler and her husband, Donald Butler, a professor of electrical engineering at SMU, along with chemistry professor Patty Wisian-Neilson have received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop this new technology.

The Butlers have already developed a prototype "smart skin" product using two preliminary grants from the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation. While this product was developed using existing commercial polymer substrates, Wisian-Neilsen will be designing custom-made inorganic polymers that will make it easier to deposit the tiny electronic components on the substrate. These custom-made polymers also will be able to withstand much higher temperatures in the manufacturing process.

While existing polymers cannot withstand temperatures above 300 degrees Celsius,

Wisian-Neilson estimates that her polymers could be used in temperatures as high as 350 degrees Celsius.

All of the polymer synthesis and sensor fabrication will be done at existing laboratories at SMU. The sensors embedded in the substrate are about 40 microns square -- about one and a half times the width of a hair.

The new technology could have numerous applications for defense, space, medicine and industry.

The military, for example, could weave sensors into soldiers' clothing that would enable them to be identified while out in the field. Or, sensors could monitor environmental parameters such as toxic gases or bacterial agents. NASA could put "smart skin" on robots that would enable them to remotely measure temperature and avoid hot objects that can cause damage.

Biomedical applications could include developing clothing that would be capable of monitoring physiological parameters such as glucose and insulin levels. The technology also could provide a sense of feel to prosthetic devices that could help avoid damage and injury.

Narayan Bhat, dean of research and graduate studies at SMU, said this new collaborative research project is the first step towards establishing a nanotechnology program at SMU that will build upon the existing strengths in its School of Engineering and Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

"The best research projects taking place today are collaborative efforts," Bhat said. "It is important for engineers to interact with the basic sciences. If you are not interacting with other disciplines, you are not going to be successful."


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