Ultrasound equipment often comes in a huge size and costs several hundred or thousands of dollars. To make these devices more invaluable and accessible, a team of engineers in Canada developed a new type of ultrasound device which is the size of a Band-Aid and comes with a small price tag. Ultrasound machines use piezoelectric crystals as a transducer which changes the shape when an electric current is passed through them and give out vibrations as a result. These vibrations and sound waves are emitted into the body until they hit a boundary and bounce back. The same crystals then convert the returning sound waves into electric currents which can be processed into an image.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) came up with another way of doing things which will make the fabrication of ultrasound technology simpler and cheaper. The breakthrough depends on the use of polymer resin in place of the piezoelectric crystals. These can be used to craft tiny vibrating drums called polyCMUT’s which will serve as the transducer. Lead author of the study, Carlos Gerardo, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering at UBC said, “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. 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.”
The team said that the device could generate sharp sonograms. The size of the device is similar to the size of a Band-Aid, it requires very little power to operate and is also flexible. This invention will also open new possibilities in the field of medicine. Gerardo said, “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. And unlike rigid ultrasound probes, our 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.”
There were many promising approaches taken to reinvent the ultrasound machine. A device, costing $2000, was also developed which displayed ultrasound images on an iPhone. The UBC researchers said that this latest technology could reduce the price to a $100. They will build a set of prototypes to explore the various potential uses of the new technology and then it will be sent for clinical testing. Co-author Robert Rohling said, “You could miniaturize these transducers and use them to look inside your arteries and veins. You could stick them on your chest and do continuous live monitoring of your heart in your daily life. It opens up so many different possibilities.”