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Sep 29.17 Magnesium, Microsensors, Fresh Fish (and More)
A new generation of biocompatible and biodegradable
ultra-thin microsensors show promise as a new tool to link the physical and digital worlds, bringing food products (e.g., measuring the temperature of foods for freshness) into the Internet of Things.

A team of researchers at ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university in Zürich, Switzerland, created the devices by encapsulating a superfine, tightly wound electrical filament made of magnesium, silicon dioxide and nitride in a compostable polymer.
Magnesium occurs naturally in our bodies and as an important element of our diet. Silicon dioxide and nitride are biocompatible and dissolvable in water. The polymer used in the microsensors comes from corn and potato starch; its composition complies with EU and US foodstuff legislation.

Microsensors are already used in a variety of applications (e.g., the detection of poisonous gases), and are integrated into miniaturized transmitter/receiver systems, such as RFID (radio frequency identification) chips used for IDing and tracking objects. But these sensors often contain precious metals potentially harmful to the environment and human health, so their applications are not suitable for medical situations involving direct contact with the human body or for inclusion in food products.
Hence, the interest for both research and industry in developing microsensors made from non-toxic, biodegradable materials.
In such cases, the sensors have to be suitable for use in foodstuffs and pose no threat to consumer health, and also need to be small, robust and flexible enough to survive in containers full of fish or other food products.

Giovanni Salvatore, a postdoctoral researcher working with the ETH group, sees a promising multi-application future for these new biodegradable microsensors. For example, he says, "In preparation for transport to Europe, fish from Japan could be fitted with tiny temperature sensors, allowing them to be continuously monitored to ensure they are kept at a cool enough temperature." This requires sensors that are suitable for use in foodstuffs and are no threat to consumer health. The sensors also need to be small, strong and flexible enough to survive in containers full of fish or other food products. The sensor developed by the ETH team is just 16 micrometers thick--thinner than a human hair-- only a few millimeters long, and weighs merely a fraction of a milligram.

The new sensor dissolves completely within 67 days in a one-percent saline solution, and continues to function for one day when completely submersed in water--sufficient time to monitor a that shipment of fish Mr. Salvatore cites. "But it's relatively easy to extend the operating life by adjusting the thickness of the polymer," he says.

Reports of the researchers’ findings have been published in the scientific journal Advanced Functional Materials.

To power the sensor, the researchers connected it to an external micro battery with ultra-thin, biodegradable zinc cables. On the same (non-biodegradable) chip are a microprocessor and a transmitter that sends the temperature data via Bluetooth to an external computer, making it possible to monitor the temperature of a product over a range of 10 to 20 meters.

Mr. Salvatore thinks it will be possible to produce such sensors (currently an expensive, time-consuming process) for the mass market, especially as the methods of printing electronic circuits are becoming increasingly sophisticated. "Once the price of biosensors falls enough, they could be used virtually anywhere," Mr. Salvatore says.

More Information and a fishy video at

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