Engineers Create 'Breathalyzer' Skin Patch

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 23, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you've ever gotten a DUI, or known someone who has, you may have heard about ignition interlock devices (IIDs) -- they're like breathalyzers for your car, forcing drivers to blow into them in order to start the engine. Normally reserved for repeat drunk drivers, more and more states are requiring ignition interlocks for first-time DUIs.

And with more IIDs on the market, scientists and engineers are working on more efficient models. Researchers at the University of California San Diego have now developed a wearable sensor that can monitor a person's blood alcohol level and communicate that information remotely to a laptop, smartphone, or even an IID, taking the breath out of the car breathalyzer.

Sweating Alcohol

The alcohol sensors mergers the latest in wearable tech and the desire to monitor alcohol consumption:

The device consists of a temporary tattoo -- which sticks to the skin, induces sweat and electrochemically detects the alcohol level -- and a portable flexible electronic circuit board, which is connected to the tattoo by a magnet and can communicate the information to a mobile device via Bluetooth.

Blood alcohol concentration, most accurately determined through blood tests, can also be estimated by measuring alcohol levels in breath and perspiration. While past devices measuring alcohol through sweat were either hours behind an accurate blood alcohol reading or impractical to wear, the UC San Diego team's sensor is easily wearable and portable, and can "accurately monitor alcohol level in sweat within 15 minutes."

Sensing Alcohol

Creators, like materials science and engineering PhD student Jayoung Kim, envision the patch as a way for drinkers to keep track of how much they've had, hoping this may deter drunk driving later. "When you're out at a party or at a bar," Kim said, "this sensor could send alerts to your phone to let you know how much you've been drinking."

While this is a great app for responsible drivers, it's also possible these patches could be used by law enforcement as a way to detect BAC in the field, or as a condition of probation following a DUI. It's not hard to envision this patches being synced to ignition interlock devices, which may provide an easier mechanism for starting the car but may also provide those monitoring the patches a more complete (and invasive) picture of a person's alcohol consumption even when they're not driving.

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