3D-printed ‘invisible’ fibres can sense breath, sound, and biological cells

Fibre sensor attached to a face covering detects human breath with high sensitivity and responsiveness  Credit: Andy Wang

From capturing your breath to guiding biological cell movements, 3D printing of tiny, transparent conducting fibres could be used to make devices which can ‘smell, hear and touch’ – making it particularly useful for health monitoring, Internet of Things and biosensing applications.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge used 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, techniques to make electronic fibres, each 100 times thinner than a human hair, creating sensors beyond the capabilities of conventional film-based devices.

The fibre printing technique, reported in the journal Science Advances, can be used to make non-contact, wearable, portable respiratory sensors. These printed sensors are high-sensitivity, low-cost and can be attached to a mobile phone to collect breath pattern information, sound and images at the same time.

First author Andy Wang, a PhD student from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, used the fibre sensor to test the amount of breath moisture leaked through his face covering, for respiratory conditions such as normal breathing, rapid breathing, and simulated coughing. The fibre sensors significantly outperformed comparable commercial sensors, especially in monitoring rapid breathing, which replicates shortness of breath.

While the fibre sensor has not been designed to detect viral particles, since scientific evidence increasingly points to the fact that viral particles such as coronavirus can be transmitted through respiratory droplets and aerosols, measuring the amount and direction of breath moisture that leaks through different types of face coverings could act an indicator in the protection ‘weak’ points.  

The team found that most leakage from fabric or surgical masks comes from the front, especially during coughing, while most leakage from N95 masks comes from the top and sides with tight fittings. Nonetheless, both types of face masks, when worn properly, help to weaken the flow of exhaled breath.

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Image: Fibre sensor attached to a face covering detects human breath with high sensitivity and responsiveness

Credit: Andy Wang

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)