Scientists from Virginia Tech under the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Macromolecules Innovation Institute have created a new type of soft electronics that are stretchy and could sustain damages without losing its electrical conductivity.

According to Virginia Tech's news release, these new soft electronics pave the way for self-healing devices that are reconfigurable and recyclable to generate new circuits at the end of the device's life.

The study, "Self-healing liquid metal composite for reconfigurable and recyclable soft electronics," published in the open-access journal Communications Materials, was led by assistant professor Michael Bartlett.

 New Type of Soft Electronics Paves Way for Self-Healing, Recyclable Devices
(Photo: Pixabay)
New Type of Soft Electronics Paves Way for Self-Healing, Recyclable Devices

What is Self-Healing Soft Electronics?

In biology, human skin or tissues have the ability to autonomously heal from wounds of various degrees to allow it to restore its mechanical and electrical properties. But that is in contrast with the electronic devices humans have made.

Current consumer devices, such as computers and smartphones, are made of rigid materials that use soldered wires running through. These devices degrade over time due to fatigue, corrosion, or damage.

In the hopes of creating self-healing devices, scientists have worked hard to create soft electronics. According to Nature Electronics, self-healing chemistry has become popular in recent years as a promising method for creating soft electronics that are mechanically robust and can repair themselves.

For instance, Penn State News reported that an international team of scientists had created a new electronic material that can heal all its functions automatically even after breaking it multiple times. The team hoped that their new material could be used to improve the durability of wearable electronics.

On the other hand, the new device by the scientists from Virginia Tech uses soft electronic composites and tiny, electricity-conducting liquid metal droplets to create a self-healing device.

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New Soft Electronics Uses Liquid Metal Droplets

According to the University's news release, the liquid metal droplets are initially dispersed in an elastomer as electrically insulated, discrete drops. post-doctoral researcher and the study's first author Ravi Tutika said that they introduced a scalable approach through embossing to rapidly create tunable circuits by selectively connecting droplets.

 "We can then locally break the droplets apart to remake circuits and can even completely dissolve the circuits to break all the connections to recycle the materials, and then start back at the beginning," Tutika said in the news release.

Like skin, the soft electronics are soft and stretchy. If it is punctured, the metal droplets can still be electrically conductive instead of cutting the connection completely like when an ordinary wire is cut. But with these circuits, the droplets make new connections around the hole for electricity to continue to flow.

Moreover, the circuits are stretchy enough for the electrical connection to continue, as the term demonstrated when they pulled the device for over ten times its original length.

When the product reaches its end of life, metal droplets and rubbery materials can be recycled and made into a liquid solution to start a new life, offering a pathway to sustainable electronics. The rapid development of these technologies holds promise for wearable electronics and soft robotics.

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