MasterChef inspired an edible medical sensor

It's vegan, and that's not even the most sustainable part.
Research student holding graphene seaweed hydrogel in gloved hand

This seaweed-infused sensor could become a medical industry mainstay. University of Sussex

A new era of biodegradable medical sensors may be on the horizon thanks in part to competitive cooks. According to Conor Boland, a materials physics lecturer in the University of Sussex’s School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, watching contestants on MasterChef utilize seaweed for a vegan gelatin alternative in desserts made him wonder where else those versatile properties could come in handy.

The results, recently published in the journal, ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, detail how Boland’s team combined graphene with natural materials including rock salt, seaweed, and water to create a new health sensor that is not only biodegradable and edible, but potentially more accurate than existing synthetic options.

[Related: Kombucha may have a surprising new use in tech.]

To make their new, effective monitor material, researchers first created a thin film using a mixture of seaweed—a natural insulator—and electrically conductive graphene. Once soaked in a salt bath, the substance absorbed the water to form a soft, spongy hydrogel akin to the standard synthetic adhesive sensors seen in hospitals. Unlike existing products, however, the new, natural biomedical sensor is so thin and lightweight, the authors described the seaweed mixture as resembling a second skin or temporary tattoo.

Bio-technological hybrid products are increasingly coming to the forefront as cutting edge, sustainable, and innovative advances across a variety of fields—from “brain organoid intelligence” models in computers, to circuit boards built from dried kombucha cultures. Echoing the new seaweed sensors’ conceit, recent developments in biodegradable smart bandages that promise faster healing times. And it’s not seaweed ‘s first tech rodeo—the watery plant serves as a muse for all manner of products and materials lately, including new bioplastics, sustainable farming, and biofuel.

[Related: Why seaweed is a natural fit for replacing certain plastics.]

The medical sensor industry is extremely lucrative—valued at over $6 billion in 2021, with estimates to rise to as much as $10 billion by 2027. Despite advances in technology, the discarded synthetic products still present a huge waste problem. As Boland explains, “The mass production of unsustainable rubber and plastic based health technology could, ironically, pose a risk to human health through microplastics leaching into water sources as they degrade.”

For Boland, recently becoming a parent provided an additional frame for the importance of his team’s work. “As a new parent, I see it as my responsibility to ensure my research enables the realization of a cleaner world for all our children,” he said, although without specifying if the edible sensors are appetizing to toddlers. That said, you can always try your hand at homemade agar-agar jelly.