A Soft Solution

Winter 2021

Helena Hahn

When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of in-person classes last March, Helena Hahn—a fourth-year student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a member of James West’s lab—was anxious to continue conducting research.

When she heard about a project underway by three graduate students in the department who were finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Hahn saw an opportunity to contribute.

The graduate student team—Adebayo Eisape, Ian McLane, and Valerie Rennoll—wanted to create a “soft electronics” version of their acoustic sensor capable of improving everything from Zoom calls to vital sign monitoring by screening out background noise.

“I saw a video demonstration of the sensor, and its ability to focus in on the target sound was really impressive,” says Hahn. The team members welcomed her to the project. “We felt this would be a way to both expose Helena to a new area of research and help with moving the transducer design forward,” Rennoll says.

Soft electronics are used to build electronic circuits that can bend and conform to various shapes. The original iteration of the sensor includes printed circuit boards, which are rigid, but a soft electronics version would allow the team’s sensor to be used in a device that patients could wear to track their vital signs or for other biomedical uses.

After reading through a few academic papers, Hahn devised a plan to integrate soft electronics into the team’s existing device using FEP conductive foil: a thin, flexible film that can be cut and stretched.

She is creating her design for the new version on her computer in her Baltimore County home. Then she will use a “cut-and-paste” method to integrate soft electronics with the acoustic transducer. Unlike alternate approaches for fabricating soft electronics, this method does not require chemicals and can be executed with a Cricut Maker, which is a computer -controlled cutting machine popular in the home crafting community.

“The entire procedure is dry and desktop, so it’s more time- and cost-effective than standard microelectronic fabrication processes,” she says.

It is still early days in what is expected to be a yearlong project. So far, Hahn has drafted layout designs and has started practicing with the Cricut Maker, which the West lab provided for her.

“I really enjoy learning about what the others are up to, and they give me insightful feedback and recommendations on my projects,” Hahn says. “I feel very fortunate to have found a way to participate in research remotely.”