Tracking Tipsiness

The latest tech to make our roads safer.

A half-century since its invention, the Breathalyzer remains the standard means of estimating blood alcohol content during traffic stops, even despite issues like inaccuracy and known subversion methods. UC San Diego is about to break through with a better alternative to the Breathalyzer—one that will take your breath away, entirely.

tattooResearchers at the Center for Wearable Sensors have successfully developed a wearable device that can accurately monitor blood alcohol levels and send the results to a mobile app in real time. The device works by using a temporary “tattoo” that releases the drug pilocarpine to make the user sweat. Sensors in the tattoo are coated with an enzyme that detects alcohol concentration, and the readings are communicated to the user’s mobile device via a small electronic circuit board magnetically attached to the tattoo. Altogether, the process takes minutes to yield an accurate reading.

The device was created in the labs of professors Joseph Wang and Patrick Mercier, director and co-director, respectively, of the Center for Wearable Sensors. Wang’s lab created the tattoo, which costs only a few cents to make thanks to screen-printing fabrication. Mercier’s group devised the flexible electronic circuit board that powers the sensor and gives it wireless capability. They also developed the corresponding app for the alcohol monitoring system.

According to Wang, this real-time window into the effect of alcohol on our bodies can make a profound difference on the road. “This technology provides an accurate, convenient and quick way to monitor alcohol consumption to help prevent people from driving while intoxicated,” he says.

The device could even be integrated with a car’s ignition interlocks. But for the moment, simplicity is the key. “The user can put on the patch and, within a few minutes, get a reading that’s well correlated to his or her blood alcohol concentration,” says Mercier. “Such a device hasn’t been available—until now.”