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New Stretchable Electronics For Better Ultrasound Imaging

A new technology developed and patented by engineers from University of California, San Diego paves the way for better ultrasound imaging of irregular surfaces.

By
Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan, Contributor
Monday, April 9, 2018

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Imagine sitting in the doctor’s office with a sprained elbow. Your doctor may order an ultrasound to evaluate your injury, but since ultrasound probes are rigid, it is often difficult to scan the irregular topography of someone's elbow, and the ultrasound may miss details critical for an accurate diagnosis. Applying special gels can help the ultrasound probe to maintain better contact with the surface, but it is often still not good enough.

A new flexible ultrasound electronic patch may soon change that. Developed and patented by a team of engineers from University of California, San Diego, the ultrasound patch prototype consists of a thin elastomeric silicone sheet embedded with an electronic structure. Described as an “island-bridge” structure, the embedded electronic structure is essentially a network of "islands" made of electrodes and piezoelectric transducers, and "bridges" made of spring-shaped copper wires. The copper spring bridges make the patch stretchy while at the same time providing electric connectivity among the islands.

When attached to an irregularly shaped surface like an elbow, transducers on the flexible patch can emit ultrasound into the tissues underneath, capture the returning soundwaves, and convert the soundwaves into electric signals that can be translated into images by a computer.

The researchers tested this prototype on a wavy-surfaced aluminium block and published the results in Science Advances. The stretchy ultrasound patch was successful in imaging the internal structure of the block. In the future, these stretchable patches may complement traditional ultrasound wands for capturing images of our irregularly shaped body parts such as our knees, elbows and ankles.