Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has set up a high-tech pilot laboratory capable of rapid prototyping ultrathin and stretchable electronics that detect bioelectric signals from skin, muscles and organs, and transmit these signals to control robots or other electronic devices.

When these smart sensors are attached to limbs or the head, they empower individuals with limb disabilities or mobility impairments by providing an accessible method to control robotic prostheses, machinery, and motorized wheelchairs using alternative muscle movements and bio-signals, NTU Singapore said in a statement on Wednesday.

Cited the United Nations, NTU Singapore said about 15 percent of the world’s population is living with some form of disability1.

NTU researchers developed these innovative soft electronics devices by combining in-house designed soft materials and processes with commercially available hardware components.

This hybrid combination allows the NTU team to integrate many types of sensors on the market, such as wireless connectivity, accelerometer, temperature sensing, and monitoring vitals like heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, and more.

The resulting sensors, encased in a gel-like skin, are soft, flexible and stretchable, similar to silicon bandages used in healthcare.

These sensors adhere to the skin, enable joint movement, and come in various sizes and thicknesses, ranging from centimeters to sub-microns – thinner than the width of a human hair (0.01 millimeters).

“We aim to address some of humanity’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to healthcare advancements,

“My goal is to establish a new center of excellence for soft electronics, building a team of industry experts and commercial partners to swiftly bring these technologies to market,” said Professor Chen Xiaodong, NTU Singapore President’s Chair Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and the Director of the Innovative Center for Flexible Devices (iFLEX).

To kickstart the scaling-up process, Prof Chen has established the pilot laboratory which aims to co-develop and produce soft electronic devices with industry partners, including Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

Through joint projects, he hopes to establish industry standards that will facilitate the mass production of soft electronics in the future and develop the necessary expertise for this emerging industry.

Supporting this vision is the NTU Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative, launched in March last year.

As a pillar of the NTU 2025 five-year strategic plan, the initiative aims to accelerate the transition from research to commercialization for faculty and students, providing mentorship and industry insights.

“In today’s fast-paced global market, accelerating disruptive innovations is not just an advantage, it’s a necessity for maintaining global leadership. NTU’s breakthroughs in soft electronics exemplify Singapore’s role as a frontrunner in advanced technology,

“Prof Chen Xiaodong’s innovations, borne at the world’s top university for materials science6, are a testament to Singapore’s commitment to be a leader in the fields of science and technology,” NTU Vice President (Innovation and Entrepreneurship) Professor Louis Phee said.

It is noted that conventionally, semiconductor manufacturing produces electronics that relies on silicon as the primary substrate or platform. However, silicon is hard and rigid.

Soft electronics, instead, use a soft platform – such as hydrogels or biocompatible plastics that are stretchable and flexible, of which NTU material scientists have invented numerous formulations.

To enable electronic circuits to accommodate movement without breaking under repeated stress, these circuits are printed on soft substrates using intricate patterns at the micro and nanoscale, about ten times thinner than the width of human hair.

One such pattern developed by Prof Chen’s team is a wavy ribbon form for soft electronics, which will allow it to stretch without breaking.

Another one of his innovations is “BIND” – a soft, stretchy, “Lego-like” universal connector7 that joins flexible electronics by simply pressing them together.

It can withstand stretching up to seven times its length and is 60 times tougher than conventional connectors.

When used together, these patent-pending technologies allow the combination of conventional hardware chips to be mounted and linked to resistors and capacitors through printed circuits.

It is noted that Singapore’s economy heavily relies on manufacturing, which constituted 22 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021.

Advanced electronics manufacturing and innovation, including the burgeoning sector of soft electronics, have been identified as key pillars for the nation’s economic development.

Moving forward, Prof Chen is dedicated to establishing Singapore as a leading-edge research and manufacturing hub for soft electronics and is seeking support from Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plan – a cornerstone for the country’s transformation into a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy and society.

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