Student earns elite spot at national lab for wearable medical device research

This article was originally published here.

Travis Peters, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering at ASSIST Partner Institution Penn State, will spend a year researching wearable electronics for medical use at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of an elite program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Peters is one of 78 students selected nationwide for the DOE’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research program. Through world-class training and access to state-of-the-art facilities and resources at national laboratories, the program prepares graduate students to enter jobs of critical importance to the DOE mission and secures our nation’s position at the forefront of discovery and innovation, according to a press release by DOE.

Peters, who is in the Susan Trolier McKinstry Research Group, looks at ways energy can be harvested from when a person’s heel strikes the ground while walking for use in low-powered devices. Specifically, Peters wants to use that energy for devices that can help the nation’s aging population.

“We’re looking for applications where we have elderly patients who may experience occasional falls,” Peters said. “Those falls might be detrimental to their health and could also lead to very costly health bills.”

Peters draws inspiration from his own family — his grandfather suffers from falls — for his research. He said he’s excited for the opportunity to work in a national lab and also that the DOE sees the importance in his work.

“What drew me to this research, and I’m sure a lot of people my age are in this position, is elderly grandparents,” Peters said. “My grandfather has had recent health issues related to walking, and sensor-based devices could help that. We have a rapidly aging baby boomer generation, so why not try to prevent them from more frequent trips to the hospital?”

Low-power energy harvesting has relevance in a wide array of medical devices, particularly implanted instruments, where power isn’t as simple as just changing the batteries. Peters worked on energy generation for wearable electronics as part of the National Science Foundation-funded program ASSIST at North Carolina State University that features research groups from 17 universities. The goal of that program is to leverage research advances in energy harvesting, low-power electronics and sensors for use in high-value applications such as health care devices.

“A lot of cool technology that I’ve been exposed to through research has given me insight as to how this technology might be applied in the future,” Peters said. “My research looks at harvesting energy from a heel strike when you take a step. This little bit of energy can be stored and later power an array of sensors that are designed to lead people to better health outcomes.”