Luther Alumni Magazine

Superpowered tattoos

Carson Bruns '08 directs his own nanotechnology lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he has
Carson Bruns '08 directs his own nanotechnology lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he has "upgraded" tattoo technology to enhance the function of human skin.

When Carson Bruns ’08, a Luther chemistry and religion double major, was hired to direct his own nanotechnology lab at the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder, he embarked on a project that would not only bring together multiple fields and personal interests, but one that would also open up new possibilities for how human skin functions.

A major in chemistry . . . and religion?

Chemistry was Bruns’s first love—he entered Luther knowing he would major in it—but an Introduction to the Bible course his first semester really opened his mind. “I absolutely loved that class,” he says. “It was the first time I’d ever looked at the Bible more objectively and taken a more academic approach. And with a liberal arts education,” he continues, “you have the flexibility and freedom to explore, so I thought I’d take another religion class.” This led to more religion classes, then a double major, then a formative J-term trip to study Buddhism in Japan, where he spent a month meditating in Buddhist monasteries. After he returned, he wanted to commemorate the experience, so he got . . .

The tattoo that changed everything

“Yep, I did that cliché thing that young people do sometimes, and I got a tattoo in a language I can’t even read,” Bruns explained in a recent TedxMileHigh talk he gave about his research.

Bruns holds up an example of his UV ray–detecting tattoo technology.
Bruns holds up an example of his UV ray–detecting tattoo technology.

“That trip inadvertently got me interested in tattoos,” he says. So when, after graduate school at Northwestern and a postdoctoral fellowship at UC–Berkeley, he was hired to direct the Emergent Nanomaterials Laboratory at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, he was already thinking about how tattoos are made of tiny pigment particles—soot—trapped in the dermis, the layer of tissue just underneath the surface of the skin. He began to wonder: How might nanotechnology update the ancient art of tattooing? What sorts of problems could the combination of nanotechnology and tattooing solve?

Bruns and his team—which includes researchers in chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and materials science—have started to answer these questions. They’ve been “upgrading” tattoo inks by filling tiny microcapsule particles with new materials—for example, UV-sensitive dyes that serve as real-time, naked-eye indicators of UV exposure—and using these particles in place of traditional tattoo pigments. If your sunscreen is working, the dye isn’t activated and your skin appears unaltered. But when your sunscreen starts to wear off, blue “solar freckles” appear, reminding you that it’s time to reapply.

Bruns and his researchers have also developed tattoos that use heat-sensitive dyes, potentially allowing you to take your body temperature without a thermometer. And they’re working on electricity-conducting tattoos that could support people with electronic biomedical implants, like pacemakers. Right now, pacemaker batteries last five or ten years before a patient needs surgery to replace an exhausted battery. Bruns imagines a future where we could recharge such batteries through patches of electricity-conducting skin.

Bruns also hopes to start work on bio-detection tattoos that could solve a host of medical problems by telling us what’s going on inside our bodies—for example, by reading our blood-sugar or blood-alcohol levels. And he hopes to research tattoos that could make skin stronger, less likely to get cut or infected or to wrinkle.

“In the future,” he says, “tattoos will not only be beautiful—they’ll be functional too.”