Award-winning researcher on the challenge of creating ‘electronic skin’

10 Apr 2019

Madhu Bhaskaran, professor of electronics engineering at RMIT University, Australia. Image: RMIT University

RMIT University’s Madhu Bhaskaran is one of Australia’s leading materials science researchers currently working on ‘electronic skin’.

Since completing her PhD in electronics material engineering in 2009, Chennai native Madhu Bhaskaran has undertaken multiple independent fellowships. Over the course of her academic career, she has held committee and executive leadership positions due to her keen interest in gender and diversity initiatives in STEM, and in enhancing research environment for budding researchers.

Bhaskaran is now a professor of electronics engineering at RMIT University in Australia and co-leads a group of 18 researchers. Her significant breakthroughs in stretchy, oxide-based electronics and innovations have led to her winning numerous awards, including a 2017 Eureka Prize and 2018 APEC Aspire Prize.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

During my master’s degree, I did a six-month project requiring me to wear a cleanroom gown and make my own silicon device for the first time. These were clear, standout moments for me when I realised that this was something that was exciting and made me want to come back the next day and do it all over again.

The idea that what I was trying to achieve could be a world-first result and push the boundaries or enhance our fundamental knowledge of something was exciting and scary at the same time. It was that six-month period which led me to undertake a PhD and carry on with research.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Our team is made up of engineers and scientists and our main expertise lies in micro/nano-fabrication and oxide materials. Our current research is on stretchable and unbreakable electronics which started as an idea six years back.

Instead of creating new materials, our aim was to capitalise on existing knowledge and high-performing materials, and combine them to unleash novel technologies. We were able to develop patented processes for platform technologies which have varied applications.

To date, we have demonstrated stretchable and skin-wearable gas and UV sensors. We are now working with industry partners to get our research out of the labs into the real world – one of the main thrusts for this work is in the health and aged care sector.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

What we have done so far is very unique in being able to offer a technology which can be customised for various applications and also remains biocompatible and low-cost.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

These stretchable sensors can be utilised for a wide variety of sectors: defence (gas sensors), healthcare (monitoring biomarkers), wellbeing (UV awareness) and aged care (non-invasive monitoring).

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Maintaining the balance between unearthing fundamental outcomes – and subsequent high-impact publications – while working with industry to push towards commercialisation is tricky.

Finding the right industry partners to work with, as well as choosing the appropriate sensors to commercialise, is also challenging. Unfortunately, industry, government and academia mostly work in silos but more engagement across these sectors will enable greater outcomes faster.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

A common misconception is the cost of this technology. Because it is electronics, many people believe it will require the billion-dollar investments similar to silicon technology. Most materials we use for our stretchable sensors are low-cost, and mass manufacturability will enable sensors of very low cost to be realised.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Cross-disciplinary research in my field will allow us to make significant strides. This includes researchers from design, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and electronics and materials engineers working together to enable truly wearable sensors. For healthcare applications, bringing medical professionals and technologists together will help exchange exciting ideas to invent path-breaking technology which can truly make life better.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.