Credit card-size device could slash the price of ultrasound sensors

An unassuming device developed by engineers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) could pave the way for ultrasounds scanners that cost as little as $100. Barely bigger than a credit card, the UBC ultrasound sensor is mobile, wearable, and can be powered by a smartphone.

Ultrasound machines typically use piezoelectric crystals to create those first photos of a person’s life. In contrast, the technology introduced by the UBC team uses tiny vibrating drums, which are cheaper to fabricate.

“We replaced the piezoelectric technology used in commercial ultrasound machines for drum-like sensors called CMUTs,” Carlos Gerardo, a UBC Ph.D. candidate who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “These CMUTs offer many technological advantages over the piezoelectric technology, but their widespread use is hampered by high fabrication costs. We on the other side, decided to use inexpensive plastic-like polymer materials to create the same kind of drums structures called polyCMUTs. It turns out that by using polymers, we were able to create high-performance ultrasound [sensors] for a few dollars only.”

Besides lower costs, one of the biggest advantages of the UBC device is that is doesn’t require much energy to operate. A smartphone can do the trick. That means the device could be used in remote areas and regions without reliable access to electricity. And the device doesn’t skimp on quality either. According to the researchers, the UBC device produced sonogram images on par with conventional ultrasound sensors.

“The quality of the created images is comparable in quality to the ones obtained by commercial ultrasound machines, except that in our case we did not have to use a complex and expensive electronic interface to create the images,” Gerardo said. “Moreover, we did this using much lower voltage levels than the ones found in commercial devices. This translates directly into an extended safety for patients.”

Since the device is small and portable, Gerardo and his team envision it being applied directly to a patient’s skin, where it could monitor vital signs. They are currently creating prototypes for medical uses.

A paper detailing the research was published recently in the journal Nature Microsystems and Nanoengineering,

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