New mini-antennas could bring medical device innovations

 In Healthcare Trends

New miniaturized antennas may be a sign of things to come for medical products, according to a team of engineers at Northeastern University in Boston and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The devices are 100 times smaller than the models currently used for wireless communication, the researchers reported in Nature Communications. Their findings suggest this tiny innovation may have an outsized role to play in the medical product development process.

For life sciences businesses, miniaturization is one of the most important avenues for enabling the creation of exciting new products. Firms are now exploring the possibilities of advancements in human factors engineering and medical user experience design. This new antenna has great potential for pushing those efforts forward while opening up fresh possibilities for product designers and manufacturers.

Thinking small in communications

The engineers based the new antennas around the difference between electromagnetic and acoustic waves. EM waves travel at the speed of light, approximately 300 million meters per second. Acoustic waves, meanwhile, travel a few thousand meters per second within a solid, with the precise rate depending on the rigidity of the material.

"The key to making this approach work is converting EM waves into acoustic ones."

Advanced antennas are currently built to resonate with EM waves, and their sizes are determined accordingly, generally longer than a tenth of the EM wavelength. Making these wavelengths any smaller is a difficult task. These engineers proposed a solution to the problem of miniaturization by taking into account that the antennas could also resonate with acoustic waves at the same frequencies.

The key to making this approach work is converting the EM waves into acoustic ones. To accomplish this, researchers used piezomagnetic material. This thin film expands and contracts in response to EM waves, resulting in acoustic vibrations.

With this material in place on acoustically actuated nanomechanical magnetoelectric antennas, researchers found they could achieve functionality in far smaller devices when compared to the latest compact antennas. With up to two orders of magnitude greater miniaturization, the antennas sent and received signals without degrading performance and much more efficiently than a conventional device of the same dimensions.

Implications for medical product innovation

The new antennas could have a wide range of applications, like incorporating smaller objects into the Internet of Things, shrinking cell phones and creating more compact satellites. The technology may prove a vital leap forward for medical product design and development. With connections for sharing data an increasingly important part of diagnosis and treatment, tiny antennas may have a valuable place in the next generation of implantable devices.

Nian Sun, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University who worked on the project, was optimistic about the medical applications for the latest advances. He explained to News @ Northeastern why the antennas represented such a meaningful step forward in biomedicine.

"Something that's millimeters or even micrometers in size would make biomedical implantation much easier to achieve, and the tissue damage would be much less," Sun said.

Sun is currently working on one such application in collaboration with a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. The scientists hope to create a device capable of detecting neuron behavior in the brain. If successful, the concept would be used to detect and treat neurological disorders such as epilepsy.

Mindflow DesignNew antennas could be the next step in miniaturizing both consumer products and medical devices.

Taking the next steps

There's still a great deal of research to be done before it becomes practical to employ the miniaturized antenna technology in implantable medical products. While the new findings could pave the way for huge advancements in how we use a variety of devices, there are a number of technical issues to resolve first.  For instance, one major obstacle that could stand in the way of using the antennas in human bodies is the heat output involved.

Rudy Diaz, an electrical engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Science that he has reservations about the high energy density that would be involved in such products. He also pointed out that the antennas would be difficult to manufacture in large quantities and are often not worth the trouble or expense. Larger antennas are getting the job done in many cases.

While is not yet clear exactly what uses the miniaturized antennas will find, it seems that fascinating opportunities may lie ahead for manufacturers of connected medical devices. As products become smaller and more widely accepted in clinical use, these technological advancements have the potential to improve treatments and save lives. The possibilities are seemingly endless for products built to take advantage of the latest in both communications capabilities and medical industrial design.

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