A team led by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay, India, has developed a graphene-enhanced inexpensive, flexible pressure sensor that can be used for various health-care applications. The piezoresistive pressure sensor can reportedly monitor even small-scale movements caused by low-pressure variations.

The sensor can measure blood pulse rate in real time when placed on the wrist and neck. The sensor was also tested for its ability to monitor respiration; When placed on the throat, the sensor could detect changes in pressure when different words were pronounced. Interestingly, the fabricated sensor also showed good sensitivity in detecting large-scale motion monitoring, as in the case of bending and extension of finger joints.

“While researchers have been working to develop sensors that can detect very small change in pressure, our pressure sensor is able to detect both small-scale motion caused by low pressure (less than 2.7 kPa) and large-scale motion at high pressure,” says the team. “The sensor exhibited good flexibility and reproducibility over 5,000 cycles.”

“When you speak, the throat muscles respond differently based on the change in pressure. The vocal muscles undergo different motions when different words are pronounced. The sensor was able to detect the slight change in pressure when different words were said,” say the IIT Bombay researchers, who collaborated with researchers from Cambridge and Monash University, Australia.

The researchers tested its sensitivity in recording the difference in pressure when different words were said, and when the same word was repeated several times. “The sensor can be used as a word-recognition device. This is only preliminary work and more has to be studied before the sensor can be used for speech recognition,” says the team.

In the case of finger bending and extension, which involves monitoring the large-scale motion, the sensor showed high sensitivity. The sensor generated different current signals when the index finger, to which it was attached, was bent. The current signal was the least when the angle of bending was small (15 degree) and maximum when the angle was high (90 degree). “We have not tested the change in pressure due to change in direction of movement of the finger,” the team clarifies.

The sensor is made using polyurethane foam coated with rGO/CNTs-based ink. The multiwalled nanotubes are dispersed in reduced graphene oxide matrix. Conductive sheets were pasted on the top and bottom sides of the foam and electrical wires connected to the sheets for measurements.

“When the PU foam coated with the ink is perturbed, in this case compressed, the air gaps are removed and the foam gets thinner. This provides a conduction path for electrical charges. The resistance drops as the foam is compressed and it becomes more conductive,” says the team.