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A new version of the motion sensor inside your smartphone may double as a biological implant that could control prosthetic limbs and other artificial body parts, say researchers at Tel Aviv University.
Those sensors are usually made with silicon, but the Tel Aviv team used a 3D printer to produce its own organic, non-toxic polymer. The result is a rubbery device about the size of a stamp and the width of a hair that can be put inside people. Once implanted, the sensor could convert nerve impulses to movement in a bionic arm or leg, normalize urination for those paralyzed below the waist, and perform other biological functions.
These devices are called microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS). They shift your phone to landscape when you tilt it, and act as both a sensor and an actuator. The sensor converts movement and chemical signals into electronic pulses that a phone can read. The actuator does the opposite by turning those pulses into movement.
Though the medical implications have excited researchers, there have yet to be any human trials. For now, the new MEMS-es are prized for their flexibility, which the Tel Aviv group says could lead to phone cameras with better motion sensors. These chips are also more energy efficient, meaning phones could have longer battery life. And, in addition to all the potential benefits, the new polymer is a lot cheaper.
“If the printing processes really do allow for mass production of polymer devices, then we will be looking at the possibility of devices so cheap that they can even be disposable,” Leeya Engel, one of the Tel Aviv University scientists who worked on the new MEMS, told LiveScience.
In the meantime, the group will focus on making the sensors even smaller.