Capable of detecting the full spectrum of light, this new light sensor could allow non-invasive, low-cost imaging of tumors or monitoring blood oxygenation levels through the use of smartphones.

In order to detect the full spectrum of light, multiple light sensors tend to be used, but the process is costly. Now, researchers have created a single, multispectral light sensor that can replace existing sensors for a fraction of the cost.

A team of scientists at the University of Surrey used one dimensional single-crystal nanorods of C60 (Buckminsterfullerene) which they describe as possessing distinct properties including high photosensitivity, high electron mobility, excellent electron accepting nature, and quick large scale synthesis that make these molecules specially suited for advanced optoelectronic devices.

In their study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the researchers said that the photodetecting qualities of their “low-cost large-area flexible photoconductor devices fabricated using C60 nanorods” was “competitive with commercially available inorganic photoconductors and photoconductive cells.”

Unlike existing light sensors produced under complex manufacturing conditions, the new, flexible sensor could be made using conventional laser printers found in offices and homes. They could also be integrated with complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology using only one metal electrode deposition step. These photodetectors could be fabricated on flexible substrates rather than using transparent substrates or electrodes, thereby bringing manufacturing costs down significantly, the researchers explained in the study. The researchers were able to successfully fabricate C60 nanorod photoconductors by depositing a C60 nanorod film onto pre-patterned interdigitated Au electrodes.

Near-infrared light technology is already used in other industries -- in agriculture and food processing as a quality control system, and in advanced security cameras. The UK researchers believe its utility could be brought over to the healthcare field by incorporating the sensor into medical imaging and monitoring devices, smartphones, and wearable gadgets.

“The new technology could allow surgeons to ‘see’ inside tissue to find tumors prior to surgery as well as equip consumer products, such as cameras and mobile phones, with night imaging options. This is useful for capturing quality pictures in the dark, and may eventually enable parents to simply monitor a child’s blood or tissue oxygenation level via a smartphone camera which could be linked to healthcare professionals,” study leader Dr. Richard Curry from the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute, said in a press release.

Biosensors that can be plugged as smartphone accessories have been featured recently. Projects in the same vein as the multispectral light sensor include the Phone Oximeter by the University of British Columbia, and the Wello smartphone case made by Azoi, Inc. Both devices are able to measure blood oxygenation levels. OScan, a peripheral device that acts as a scanner for imaging the oral cavity, has shown potential in oral cancer screening. 

These projects, along with the multispectral light sensor study by UK researchers highlight the need for low-cost imaging that could bring the same useful results as conventional, expensive medical imaging procedures. According to a report by the American College of Radiology, medical imaging costs are declining, but if the healthcare industry wants to maintain costs to a minimum, one answer could be the increased utilization of cost-effective solutions like smartphones and wearables with biosensing capabilities.