Student invention: Glow means no-go

Glowing wristbands meet drunk-driving prevention at Inworks' bio lab

December 6, 2017

Student innovators from Inworks at CU Denver teamed up to develop a wristband that glows when wearers are too drunk to drive. The wristband, which is 100 percent biodegradable, is made from bacterial cellulose and contains an enzyme that reacts with alcohol naturally excreted through the skin.

They hope this will help prevent alcohol-related deaths – the third-highest preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Over the course of a semester, the four innovators and supporting staff spent thousands of hours collectively to develop the product, which they call the RXN wristband. It emits a neon glow when users’ blood-alcohol content rises above the legal threshold for drunk driving. The wearable band is visually appealing – it’s basically a stylish accessory – allowing it to seamlessly integrate into bars or music festivals.

The RXN wristband glows when wearers’ blood-alcohol content rises above the legal threshold for drunk driving.

Although the wristbands haven’t yet been mass-produced, the manufacturing process – the enzymes are produced using a fermentation process similar to brewing beer – is expected to be affordable and environmentally friendly.

The RXN wristband has already garnered widespread attention. The team represented CU Denver in June as finalists in the 2017 Biodesign Challenge – an international design competition held in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art. The team’s sponsor for the Biodesign Challenge was Heather Underwood, who, at the time, served as an assistant professor and Inworks’ assistant director. Underwood taught the Inworks Bio Design class where the project got its start in spring 2017.

Learning through doing

Inworks is an interdisciplinary space where students engage in making things using a variety of equipment – from sewing machines to 3D printers – while collaborating with others and doing the work needed to understand and solve some of society’s most-pressing problems.

Not every RXN team member had experience in synthetic biology, but the team’s interdisciplinary nature enhanced the project:

  • Andrew Henderson holds a BSc in microbiology and, as of this fall, became Inworks’ Synthetic Biology Lab manager. He joined the RXN team as a mentor last spring because of his experience and interest in enzyme-based sensors.
  • Steve Lewis holds a master’s degree in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. He is a professional who took the Bio Design course as a non-degree-seeking student.
  • Jenny Filipetti is an electronic media artist and creative technology educator. Along with Lewis, Filipetti (who is now a faculty member at Inworks) took the class as a non-degree-seeking student.
  • Alex Swanson is a sophomore at CU Denver majoring in marketing.

“Going into this, everyone else had so much more experience in biology and I had little to none,” said Swanson. “But I learned so much during this project.”

CU Denver team at Biodesign Challenge
The CU Denver team presents its wristband technology at the 2017 Biodesign Challenge.

The project had its ups and downs; there were major breakthroughs and times when success seemed almost unattainable. Through it all, Lewis noted that Inworks’ unique environment was crucial to the project’s overall success.

Over the course of a semester, the team successfully cleared various obstacles and created a working prototype for an affordable, battery-free, alcohol-sensing wristband. The wristband has a shelf life of about 10 days at room temperature and can glow for up to eight hours after activation with no electricity involved.

“Biology is the next stage of technology,” Lewis said. “We went from idea to working prototype for less than $2,000. The cost to do research is coming down, and while a formal education is helpful, it’s not a requirement to do legitimate research projects similar to ours.”

What’s next?

Currently, the team is continuing its research in the lab as well as expanding applications for the product’s design. The fabrication technique used to create each wristband draws from sustainable materials, starting with the bacteria that produce the cellulose.

The prototype may ultimately be used as a platform, allowing customized biosensors to track different biometrics. Because the band reacts with chemicals excreted by the skin, the technology offers many possible applications, according to team members.

Beyond helping bartenders to clearly identify when a customer is at the limit for alcohol consumption, the team hopes to integrate the wristband into places like music festivals to encourage a responsible mindset around social drinking.

“It was a series of wins, a bunch of snags, and then a big win,” said Henderson.

For more information, check out the RXN wristband website.