These 'Temporary Tattoo' Alcohol Sensors Can Tell You How Drunk You Are

By Dorri Olds 08/05/16

The skin patch sensors can reportedly transmit your blood alcohol content to a bluetooth-enabled mobile device in minutes.

These 'Temporary Tattoo' Alcohol Sensors Can Tell You How Drunk You Are
Photo UC San Diego

Intoxicating advances are happening in the world of wearable sensor technology. The latest excitement is about a flexible, wearable, electronic skin patch that can monitor how drunk you are. Here’s how it works: the “temporary tattoo” sticks to your skin, induces sweat, electrochemically measures your blood alcohol content (BAC), then transmits data of your level of intoxication to mobile devices via Bluetooth technology.

The remarkable gadget was developed by engineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering, a leader in the field of wearable sensors. The development team for the futuristic device is headed up by nanoengineering professor Dr. Joseph Wang and electrical engineering professor Patrick Mercier. Wang’s specialty is minimally-invasive electrochemical sensing and bioelectronics. Mercier’s expertise is in wireless communications, energy-harvesting integrated circuits and ultra-low-power systems.

The temporary tattoo they created leaves the breathalyzer in the dust when it comes to accuracy. While breath tests are enough to give a cop probable cause to arrest you for a DUI, they aren’t admissible in court because they’re not all that accurate.

A breathalyzer test measures the amount of alcohol in your breath, not your blood. Something as simple as mouthwash can alter the result. But blood tests are not easy to do on the fly. Drawing blood is cumbersome—and a lot more unpleasant. That’s where this new-fangled skin patch comes in handy. It can accurately detect a person's BAC within 15 minutes.

According to a Jacobs School of Engineering press release, researchers tested the alcohol sensor on nine healthy volunteers who wore the tattoo on their arms before and after consuming an alcoholic beverage. The readouts accurately reflected the wearer's BAC and were not affected by the wearer’s movements, researchers said. As a next step, the team is developing a device that could continuously monitor alcohol levels for 24 hours.

“[The temporary tattoo] is a follow-up of our glucose tattoo for diabetes and of our skin-worn sensors in general,” Dr. Wang told The Fix. “We hope to expand to a larger population toward commercializations.”

Mercier told The Fix that there will be more controlled studies soon. “As we continue to refine and optimize the device, we hope to perform larger studies," he said. "And we have a strong IP portfolio in the area of wearable chemical sensors, and are actively working to develop some of our research prototypes into commercial products either via our own ventures, or with other commercial partners.”

Mercier went on to say, “The alcohol sensor was developed over roughly a period of one year. We leveraged our existing experience in wearable chemical sensors to enable this rapid development. Non-invasive monitoring of BAC is an important topic for a wide variety of applications, and we were not satisfied with existing solutions, so we decided to modify our temporary tattoo sensing technology to see if it would be suitable to non-invasive alcohol monitoring applications.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.