$100 Ultrasound Machines On The Horizon

No bigger than a Band-Aid, and portable, wearable and possibly powered by a smartphone some Engineers at the University of British Columbia have developed a new ultrasound transducer (probe) that could lower the cost of ultrasound scanners to as little as $100.

As we're rapidly approaching a 1-trillion-plus sensor economy, where we'll be able to know anything, anywhere, at anytime sensors will augment our five biological senses with unthinkable data acquisition capabilities. Healthcare is one of the 1st areas that will benefit from sensors. Imagine our future where we no longer need to worry about curing cancer, because our personal tumor-seeking sensor-shell can detect early signs of cancer before cells even become cancerous. Sensors like this take us another step closer.

Current ultrasound scanners use piezoelectric crystals hooked up to a computer to create sonograms. These researchers swapepd piezoelectric crystals with tiny vibrating drums of polymer resin, called polyCMUTs (polymer capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers), which are cheaper to manufacture.

Sonograms produced by the UBC device were as sharp as or even more detailed than traditional sonograms produced by piezoelectric transducers, said the co-author and professor of electrical and computer engineering, Edmond Cretu.

"Since our transducer needs just 10 volts to operate, it can be powered by a smartphone, making it suitable for use in remote or low-power locations," he added. "And unlike rigid ultrasound probes, our transducer has the potential to be built into a flexible material that can be wrapped around the body for easier scanning and more detailed views—without dramatically increasing costs."

UBC researcher Carlos Gerardo shows new ultrasound transducer. Credit: Clare Kiernan, University of British Columbia

Robert Rohling, also a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a co-author, said the next step is to develop a wide range of prototypes then test their device in clinical situations.

"You could miniaturize these transducers and use them to look inside your arteries and veins. You could stick them on your chest and do live continuous monitoring of your heart in your daily life. It opens up so many different possibilities," said Rohling.