Making Tech Flexible with Madhu Bhaskaran

Chris Stokel-Walker

Growing up in India as the daughter of two physicians, Madhu Bhaskaran knew she wanted to work in the science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM) sector. But precisely which part, she couldn’t decide. “I can’t code to save my life, and IT wasn’t something of big interest to me,” she says. She was interested in the idea of how—over the course of a decade—the primary method of communicating in homes across India had gone from an expensive, bulky, corded phone in the corner to a small, agile cell phone in one’s pocket. “My curiosity was driven by trying to understand how these electronics work,” she explains.

So she entered the world of electronics, attaining a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, then moving to Melbourne's RMIT University, where she now works as a professor. Along the way, she’s earned her master’s degree and PhD, and narrowed her area of focus.

Initially, she was interested in trying to reduce the energy consumption of electronic devices. Then she moved onto another field: stretchable electronics. It was a subject she hit on back in 2012 and 2013. “Our basic question was why are electronics, as they stand today, so fragile and breakable—and is there anything we can do to render them stretchable or unbreakable, in some sense?” she explains. But Bhaskaran didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and try to make totally new electronic materials that happened to be stretchable. That would undo decades of innovation in miniaturization and improvements in technology. “What we wanted to do was take current electronics as they stand and see if we can preserve their performance and high functionality while rendering them stretchable.”

This wasn't easy. Modern-day materials for electronic devices are brittle and rigid, and tend to only operate within a limited temperature range. Hardly anything, from the way they’re made to the way they’re used in devices, is pliable. But after years of hard work, Bhaskaran managed to find a happy medium, using oxide materials grown on a rigid platform. Doing so retained the devices' high functionality, but allowed them to be transferred to a stretchable material. Another eureka moment came in how to use these oxide materials: layering them like tectonic plates, overlapping and maintaining contact (all-important for electronics) while moving.

Her stretchable electronics are now deployed in different ways at different stages of development. They’re being used in gas sensors and optical sensors, in smart beds to monitor sleep, and in the health care sector. It’s in the latter where Bhaskaran thinks her innovation could have the greatest impact. “It’s going to change the way you’re going to gather your data. I don’t think I ever envisage this replacing diagnosis or replacing clinicians, but it just makes life a little better in that you don’t have to spend your time in hospitals doing tests as much as you are doing right now.”

There’s still work to do, though. The most commercial deployment of her tech is with a company called Sleeptite, which is placing the sensors in mattresses. “Trying to take the sensors we developed in our state-of-the-art labs and trying to now scale them across mattress size while keeping the functionality is proving challenging. That’s going to keep us busy for the next three to five years—if not more.”