How Ultrasound-Powering Technology Could Revolutionize Healthcare

Ultrasound is a well-known technique for imaging the inside of the human body, such as organs, blood vessels, and unborn babies. But what if ultrasound could also be used to power devices that are implanted in the body, such as pacemakers, neurostimulators, or sensors?

This is the idea behind a novel ultrasound-powering technology that has been developed by researchers from imec and Delft University of Technology, in collaboration with the European Research Council. The technology, which was presented at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in February 2024, is a proof-of-concept for wireless powering of implantable devices using ultrasound waves.

How does it work?

The ultrasound-powering technology consists of two main components: a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter is a small device that can be attached to the skin, near the location of the implant. The transmitter generates ultrasound waves that travel through the tissue and reach the implant. The receiver is a tiny chip that is integrated in the implant and converts the ultrasound waves into electrical power. The receiver also communicates with the transmitter to adjust the power level and the beam direction.

The researchers have designed the transmitter and the receiver using a unique adiabatic driving technique, which reduces the power consumption and the size of the components. The technique is based on the concept of “global charge redistribution”, which means that the charges are recycled within the ultrasound transducer array, instead of using external capacitors. This allows for a more compact and efficient design, as well as precise beam steering up to 53 degrees.

The researchers have demonstrated that their ultrasound-powering technology can successfully deliver power to neural implants, which are devices that record or stimulate the activity of neurons in the brain. Neural implants are used for various purposes, such as understanding and treating neurological disorders, enhancing cognitive functions, or interfacing with prosthetic limbs. However, neural implants face challenges in terms of powering, as traditional methods, such as wires or batteries, are either invasive, bulky, or prone to failure. The ultrasound-powering technology offers a minimally invasive, wireless, and reliable solution for powering neural implants.

What are the benefits?

The ultrasound-powering technology has several benefits for both patients and healthcare providers. Some of the benefits are:

  • It eliminates the need for invasive procedures or bulky components, such as wires or batteries, that can cause complications, such as scarring, infection, or leakage.
  • It enables precise and dynamic control of the power delivery and the beam direction, which can compensate for brain micro-movements and misalignments, such as those occurring during surgery and respiration.
  • It allows for longer battery life and lower maintenance costs, as the implants can be recharged wirelessly and remotely, without the need for surgery or replacement.
  • It opens up new possibilities for innovative healthcare applications, such as wireless (neural) implants, that can improve the quality of life and the health outcomes of patients.

What are the challenges?

The ultrasound-powering technology is still in its early stages of development and faces some challenges before it can be widely adopted in the healthcare sector. Some of the challenges are:

  • It requires further testing and validation in animal and human studies, to ensure the safety and efficacy of the technology, as well as the compliance with the regulatory standards and ethical guidelines.
  • It needs to overcome the technical limitations and trade-offs, such as the power efficiency, the data rate, the noise level, and the heating effect, that are inherent to the ultrasound transmission and reception.
  • It has to address the social and psychological aspects, such as the acceptance, the trust, and the privacy, that are involved in the use of wireless (neural) implants, especially for long-term or permanent applications.

What is the future?

The ultrasound-powering technology is a promising step towards leveraging ultrasound, not only for imaging, but also for powering, the human body. The technology has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare sector, by enabling new forms of diagnosis, treatment, and enhancement, that are wireless, minimally invasive, and personalized. The technology could also pave the way for the development of the “intranet of neurons”, which is a vision of connecting multiple neural implants within and across individuals, to create a network of brain-computer interfaces.

The researchers are working on improving and scaling up their ultrasound-powering technology, as well as exploring new applications and collaborations. They hope that their technology will contribute to the advancement of healthcare technology and the improvement of human health and well-being.

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