I’ll always remember what my father told me after buying my first fully loaded new car: “Sure you like it now. But the more gizmos you’ve got in there, the more repairs it’s going to need.”
I dismissed his observation as proof that my father is leery of anything electronic. (He still doesn’t own a computer and his voicemail is always full because he has no idea how to delete messages.)
Besides, I had little choice, as electronics are becoming more integrated into our daily lives. Heck, I actually opted out of half of the possible upgrades the dealer offered.
But sure enough, within two years, the sunroof started acting goofy. Followed by the driver-side window. Then the passenger-side airbag indicator.
In the current Electronic Age, we’ve all had a device – whether it’s a mobile phone or coffee maker – that inexplicably stopped working one day.
Luckily, scientists at the University of Illinois have developed a solution that should keep our electronic gizmos running smoothly for much longer…
Repair or Replace?
Device malfunctions are often associated with how new products are put together: As electronics become more advanced, manufacturers are forced to jam more circuits and chips into a smaller space.
This can eventually cause chips to overheat. Even a tiny disruption can cause a total shutdown. That’s because “when a circuit is damaged, a crack will open up and separate the conductive pathway,” according to Illinois aerospace engineering professor, Scott White.
And repairing these tightly packed devices isn’t easy. As professor, Nancy Sottos, says, “In general, there’s not much avenue for manual repair… Sometimes you just can’t get to the inside.”
That’s why it can be easier just to replace our malfunctioning electronics, rather than repair them.
But these University of Illinois scientists plan to change that, since they’ve found a way to allow electronic components to heal all by themselves.
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The Power of Liquid Metal
They’ve developed a system that can restore conductivity lost in a circuit as soon as the damage occurs.
In short, they coat a circuit, like the one you’d see in your mobile phone, with microcapsules of liquid metal. When something damages the circuit, the capsules automatically burst and the liquid metal spreads out in the affected site.
This fills in the gaps, restores the flow of electrons, and brings the device back online. And it doesn’t take hours, minutes, or even seconds to repair the damage. The whole process takes about 100 microseconds – faster than the human eye can see.
That’s great, considering many of us find it unbearable to lose access to our mobile devices for very long. And since only the microcapsules at the damaged site are deployed into action, the liquid metal at other parts of the circuit remain untouched, ready to repair further damage on demand.
Although this technology would provide obvious benefits for personal electronics, the greater potential lies in healing circuits in systems that can’t be easily replaced…
Smart Applications Beyond Your Smartphone
Take aerospace and defense, for example.
According to Sottos, “In an aircraft, especially a defense-based aircraft, there are miles and miles of conductive wire… You don’t often know where the break occurs. The autonomous part is nice – it knows where it broke, even if we don’t.”
Better yet, the scientists are already thinking of other applications for the technology. According to White, “Everything prior to this has been on structural repair. This is on conductivity restoration. It shows the concept translates to other things, as well.”
And since there’s not a single electronic device that couldn’t benefit from being covered in these self-healing microcapsules – including car window controls – we’re definitely keeping a close eye on what they come up with next.