Flexible sensor made from chewing gum promises sensitive and versatile wearables

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To begin with, one of the team members chewed away on a piece of regular gum for 30 minutes (not the gum pictured here)(Credit: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-39089131)

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The small sensors found in wearables like fitness trackers and smartwatches are only becoming more versatile, from monitoring your heart rate to enabling gesture control. But a new sensor design could afford these devices even more flexibility, in more ways than one. By combining carbon nanotubes with used chewing gum, scientists have developed a sensing device that can pick up movements of the more flexible body parts, such as bent finger.

Discreet and flexible sensors worked into all manner of wearable devices have come to offer a wealth of information on our movements, sleeping habits and other personal data. But despite their adaptability, they are still held back somewhat by an element of rigidity. If they are pulled, bent or twisted in the wrong way then they may stop functioning.

So sensors that can keep working even when contorted into all kinds of shapes could signal a major advance in wearable technology. Soft rubbers and silicones are materials some researchers are turning to in pursuit of this, such as the team behind the stretchable, programmable keyboard we covered last week.

But scientists from the University of Manitoba claim to have developed a solution that offers greater sensitivity. To begin with, one of the team members chewed away on a piece of regular gum for 30 minutes, before cleaning it with ethanol and leaving it to sit overnight. A solution containing carbon nanotubes, which serve as the sensing component, was then applied to the gum.

The researchers report that this unlikely mix resulted in a highly sensitive sensor that retained its functionality in finger-bending and head-turning tests, even when strained by as much as 530 percent. Interestingly, they also found that the sensor was capable of tracking humidity in the air, something the team says could be used to monitor breathing where water vapor is released on each exhale.

The research was published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

You can see the sensor in action in the video below.

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