Engineers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a new ultrasound transducer, or probe - no bigger than a band aid - that is portable, wearable and can be powered by a smartphone.
Conventional ultrasound scanners use piezoelectric crystals to create images of the inside of the body and send them to a computer to create sonograms.
Researchers replaced the piezoelectric crystals with tiny vibrating drums made of polymer resin, called polyCMUTs (polymer capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers), which are cheaper to manufacture.
"Transducer drums have typically been made out of rigid silicon materials that require costly, environment-controlled manufacturing processes, and this has hampered their use in ultrasound," said lead author Carlos Gerardo, a doctoral student at the UBC.
"By using polymer resin, we were able to produce polyCMUTs in fewer fabrication steps, using a minimum amount of equipment, resulting in significant cost savings," Gerardo added.
Sonograms produced by the new device were as sharp as or even more detailed than traditional sonograms produced by piezoelectric transducers, said co-author Edmond Cretu, professor of electrical and computer engineering.
"Since our transducer needs just 10 volts to operate, it can be powered by a smartphone, making it suitable for use in remote or low-power locations," he added, in the paper detailed in the journal Microsystems and Nanoengineering.
Unlike the rigid ultrasound probes, the transducer has the potential to be built into a flexible material that can be wrapped around the body for easier scanning and more detailed views -- without dramatically increasing costs.
The next step would be to miniaturise these transducers and use them to look inside your arteries and veins. You could stick them on your chest and do live continuous monitoring of your heart in your daily life. It opens up so many different possibilities, the researchers said.