This electronic bandage sterilizes wounds with flashes of light


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Aug 16, 2023

This electronic bandage sterilizes wounds with flashes of light

A doctor bandages the head of a little boy at a hospital. New electronic bandages could soon provide antibiotic-free options to keep wounds germ-free as they heal. ER Productions

A doctor bandages the head of a little boy at a hospital. New electronic bandages could soon provide antibiotic-free options to keep wounds germ-free as they heal.

ER Productions Ltd./DigitalVision/Getty Images Plus

By Katie Grace Carpenter

August 25, 2023 at 6:30 am

A new electronic bandage kills germs with flashes of light. And good new: No antibiotics needed.

Embedded with tiny LED bulbs, the bandage emits light at ultraviolet-C, or UVC, wavelengths. Doctors and dentists often use this high-energy light to clean medical equipment. But sterilizing wounds with UVC hasn’t been so easy. The big hurdle: energy. A light-flashing bandage needs power. So typically, those bandages have needed a battery. (Otherwise, they would have to be plugged in.)

But powered by wireless technology, the new bandage needs no bulky batteries. That allows the device to fit comfortably and flexibly. It also means fewer used batteries end up in the trash, where they can leach chemicals that hurt the environment.

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Electricity travels to the new bandage from a “powering coil” — a piece of fabric threaded with copper wires. Electric toothbrushes receive energy in a similar way when they sit in their charging cradles. “It’s the same principle,” says Stephen Beeby. He studies materials science at the University of Southampton in England. His group created the new bandage.

This team didn’t invent wireless power or light-emitting bandages. But it is the first time they’ve been used together, notes his co-worker Mahmoud Wagih. He studies sustainable electronics at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. This is “the first time someone has developed [a] UV antibacterial system that is entirely wireless,” he says.

Their team described its work in the May issue of IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems.

Wireless power makes the UV-based bandages more practical. Their light replaces the antibiotics typically used to kill germs. And having antibiotic-free options for wound care is a big deal.

Antibiotics save lives. But their long-term use brings problems. Many bacteria have adapted to survive in the presence of antibiotics. In the United States alone, more than 2.8 million people develop infections resistant to antibiotics each year. (More than 35,000 of them die.) The so-called “superbugs” behind these infections can lead to non-healing wounds. People with certain diseases — such as diabetes or cancer — face the greatest risk of such long-lasting wounds.

Tech advances, such as this new bandage, might help limit this issue.

From the outside, the new bandage doesn’t look all that novel, Beeby admits. But tucked inside is a coil — a flexible strip of LED-studded electronics. This coil is what emits the light.

When it’s time to apply a clean dressing to a wound, just take out the electronic coil and slip it inside a new fabric bandage, Beeby says. You throw away the old bandage, but not the electronics. Think of that fabric dressing as a “kind of vehicle for the electronics,” he explains.

Once applied, the bandage periodically flashes the surface of the wound with UV light. Those high-energy rays zap any lurking germs.

The team tested the ability of their device to kill microbes in a petri dish for more than six hours. They exposed bacteria to different levels of UVC from the bandage. Lower-intensity light stopped the bacteria from reproducing. Higher intensity levels killed the microbes.

A doctor might even customize the bandage to the wound, says Beeby. A deep wound, for example, might need higher-intensity flashes than a shallow infection.

Amirhossein Hajiaghajani studies wireless power at the University of California, Irvine. He sees potential in this new bandage — but also some hurdles to its widespread use. Chief among those hurdles: the device’s relatively short range.

To work, the bandage must be within range of its wireless energy source, that powering coil. “That’s important,” says Wagih, because while the bandage may not have a battery, that powering coil does.

Right now, the bandage must be within about 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) of the coil, says Wagih.

To Hajiaghajai, who is not involved in the project, “that range is very limited.”

Beeby and Wagih do agree. An important next step will be extending the range of that wireless power. But Beeby already sees a place where the device could find use. Imagine a patient in bed, Beeby says. “The coil could be embedded [in] the sheet.”

Extending the bandage’s range will improve the device. But even now, it offers some advantages over traditional bandages.

For instance: The team developed this bandage for people. But imagine using it for animals, says Wagih. A bandage for pets, perhaps? Or even farm animals, he suggests. Already farm use of antibiotics is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance worldwide. Farms are “really an environment where you do not want to be using antibiotics,” Wagih says.

antibacterial: Having properties that tend to destroy or limit the growth or reproduction of bacteria.

antibiotic: A germ-killing substance, usually prescribed as a medicine (or sometimes as a feed additive to promote the growth of livestock). It does not work against viruses.

application: A particular use or function of something.

bacteria: (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals). Bacteria are one of the three domains of life on Earth.

biomedical: Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

cancer: Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

circuit: A network that transmits electrical signals. In the body, nerve cells create circuits that relay electrical signals to the brain. In electronics, wires typically route those signals to activate some mechanical, computational or other function.

coil: Concentric rings or spirals formed by winding wire or some other fiber around and around a core; or the shape that such a wire would make.

consumer: (n.) Term for someone who buys something or uses something. (adj.) A person who uses goods and services that must be paid for.

current: (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of charge moving through some material over a particular period of time.

develop: To emerge or to make come into being, either naturally or through human intervention, such as by manufacturing.

diabetes: A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

electrical engineer: An engineer who designs, builds or analyzes electrical equipment.

electricity: A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

electronics: Devices that are powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.

engineering: The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems. Someone who works in this field is known as an engineer.

fabric: Any flexible material that is woven, knitted or can be fused into a sheet by heat.

infection: A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some type of microbe.

LED: (short for light emitting diode) Electronic components that, as their name suggests, emit light when electricity flows through them. LEDs are very energy-efficient and often can be very bright. They have lately been replacing conventional lights for home and commercial lamps.

materials science: The study of how the atomic and molecular structure of a material is related to its overall properties. Materials scientists can design new materials or analyze existing ones. Their analyses of a material’s overall properties (such as density, strength and melting point) can help engineers and other researchers select materials that are best suited to a new application.

microbe: Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

novel: Something that is clever or unusual and new, as in never seen before. (in literature) A work of fiction.

range: The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists.

resistance: (as in drug resistance) The reduction in the effectiveness of a drug to cure a disease, usually a microbial infection.

risk: The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

sustainable: (n. sustainability) An adjective to describe the use of resources in a such a way that they will continue to be available long into the future.

system: A network of parts that together work to achieve some function. For instance, the blood, vessels and heart are primary components of the human body's circulatory system. Similarly, trains, platforms, tracks, roadway signals and overpasses are among the potential components of a nation's railway system. System can even be applied to the processes or ideas that are part of some method or ordered set of procedures for getting a task done.

technology: The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

transmit: (n. transmission) To send or pass along.

wireless: (in telecommunications) An adjective that describes the ability of certain devices to send and receive radio signals over the air. It often refers to Wi-Fi networks and the networks operated by cell-phone companies to transmit data called up by phone users.

Journal:​ ​​I. Ullah ​et​ ​al.​ ​Wirelessly powered drug-free and anti-Infective smart bandage for chronic wound care.​ IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems.​ ​​Published online ​May 19, 2023. doi:​ ​10.1109/TBCAS.2023.327731.

Journal:​ C. Manyi-Loh et al. Antibiotic use in agriculture and its consequential resistance in environmental sources: Potential public health implications. Molecules. Vol. 23, April 2018, p. 795. doi: 10.3390/molecules23040795.

Katie Grace Carpenter is a science writer and curriculum developer, with degrees in biology and biogeochemistry. She also writes science fiction and creates science videos. Katie lives in the U.S. but also spends time in Sweden with her husband, who’s a chef.

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