Tag Archives: bendable electronics

From flubber to thubber

Flubber (flying rubber) is an imaginary material that provided a plot point for two Disney science fiction comedies, The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 which was remade in 1997 as Flubber. By contrast, ‘thubber’ (thermally conductive rubber) is a real life new material developed at Carnegie Mellon University (US).

A Feb. 13, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Carmel Majidi and Jonathan Malen of Carnegie Mellon University have developed a thermally conductive rubber material that represents a breakthrough for creating soft, stretchable machines and electronics. The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

The new material, nicknamed “thubber,” is an electrically insulating composite that exhibits an unprecedented combination of metal-like thermal conductivity, elasticity similar to soft, biological tissue, and can stretch over six times its initial length.

A Feb.13, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note A link has been removed),

“Our combination of high thermal conductivity and elasticity is especially critical for rapid heat dissipation in applications such as wearable computing and soft robotics, which require mechanical compliance and stretchable functionality,” said Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Applications could extend to industries like athletic wear and sports medicine—think of lighted clothing for runners and heated garments for injury therapy. Advanced manufacturing, energy, and transportation are other areas where stretchable electronic material could have an impact.

“Until now, high power devices have had to be affixed to rigid, inflexible mounts that were the only technology able to dissipate heat efficiently,” said Malen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Now, we can create stretchable mounts for LED lights or computer processors that enable high performance without overheating in applications that demand flexibility, such as light-up fabrics and iPads that fold into your wallet.”

The key ingredient in “thubber” is a suspension of non-toxic, liquid metal microdroplets. The liquid state allows the metal to deform with the surrounding rubber at room temperature. When the rubber is pre-stretched, the droplets form elongated pathways that are efficient for heat travel. Despite the amount of metal, the material is also electrically insulating.

To demonstrate these findings, the team mounted an LED light onto a strip of the material to create a safety lamp worn around a jogger’s leg. The “thubber” dissipated the heat from the LED, which would have otherwise burned the jogger. The researchers also created a soft robotic fish that swims with a “thubber” tail, without using conventional motors or gears.

“As the field of flexible electronics grows, there will be a greater need for materials like ours,” said Majidi. “We can also see it used for artificial muscles that power bio-inspired robots.”

Majidi and Malen acknowledge the efforts of lead authors Michael Bartlett, Navid Kazem, and Matthew Powell-Palm in performing this multidisciplinary work. They also acknowledge funding from the Air Force, NASA, and the Army Research Office.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High thermal conductivity in soft elastomers with elongated liquid metal inclusions by Michael D. Bartlett, Navid Kazem, Matthew J. Powell-Palm, Xiaonan Huang, Wenhuan Sun, Jonathan A. Malen, and Carmel Majidi.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616377114

This paper is open access.

Shape memory in a supercapacitor fibre for ‘smart’ textiles (wearable tech: 1 of 3)

Wearable technology seems to be quite trendy for a grouping not usually seen: consumers, fashion designers, medical personnel, manufacturers, and scientists.

The first in this informal series concerns a fibre with memory shape. From a Nov. 19, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Wearing your mobile phone display on your jacket sleeve or an EKG probe in your sports kit are not off in some distant imagined future. Wearable “electronic textiles” are on the way. In the journal Angewandte Chemie (“A Shape-Memory Supercapacitor Fiber”), Chinese researchers have now introduced a new type of fiber-shaped supercapacitor for energy-storage textiles. Thanks to their shape memory, these textiles could potentially adapt to different body types: shapes formed by stretching and bending remain “frozen”, but can be returned to their original form or reshaped as desired.

A Nov. 19, 2015 Wiley Publishers press release, which originated the news item, provides context and detail about the work,

Any electronic components designed to be integrated into textiles must be stretchable and bendable. This is also true of the supercapacitors that are frequently used for data preservation in static storage systems (SRAM). SRAM is a type of storage that holds a small amount of data that is rapidly retrievable. It is often used for caches in processors or local storage on chips in devices whose data must be stored for long periods without a constant power supply. Some time ago, a team headed by Huisheng Peng at Fudan University developed stretchable, pliable fiber-shaped supercapacitors for integration into electronic textiles. Peng and his co-workers have now made further progress: supercapacitor fibers with shape memory.

Any electronic components designed to be integrated into textiles must be stretchable and bendable. This is also true of the supercapacitors that are frequently used for data preservation in static storage systems (SRAM). SRAM is a type of storage that holds a small amount of data that is rapidly retrievable. It is often used for caches in processors or local storage on chips in devices whose data must be stored for long periods without a constant power supply.
Some time ago, a team headed by Huisheng Peng at Fudan University developed stretchable, pliable fiber-shaped supercapacitors for integration into electronic textiles. Peng and his co-workers have now made further progress: supercapacitor fibers with shape memory.

The fibers are made using a core of polyurethane fiber with shape memory. This fiber is wrapped with a thin layer of parallel carbon nanotubes like a sheet of paper. This is followed by a coating of electrolyte gel, a second sheet of carbon nanotubes, and a final layer of electrolyte gel. The two layers of carbon nanotubes act as electrodes for the supercapacitor. Above a certain temperature, the fibers produced in this process can be bent as desired and stretched to twice their original length. The new shape can be “frozen” by cooling. Reheating allows the fibers to return to their original shape and size, after which they can be reshaped again. The electrochemical performance is fully maintained through all shape changes.

Weaving the fibers into tissues results in “smart” textiles that could be tailored to fit the bodies of different people. This could be used to make precisely fitted but reusable electronic monitoring systems for patients in hospitals, for example. The perfect fit should render them both more comfortable and more reliable.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Shape-Memory Supercapacitor Fiber by Jue Deng, Ye Zhang, Yang Zhao, Peining Chen, Dr. Xunliang Cheng, & Prof. Dr. Huisheng Peng. Angewandte Chemie International Edition  DOI: 10.1002/anie.201508293  First published: 3 November 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of Vermont and the ‘excitons’ of an electron superhighway

This story starts off with one of the current crazes, folding and bendable electronics, before heading off onto the ‘electron highway’. From a Sept. 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

TV screens that roll up. Roofing tiles that double as solar panels. Sun-powered cell phone chargers woven into the fabric of backpacks. A new generation of organic semiconductors may allow these kinds of flexible electronics to be manufactured at low cost, says University of Vermont physicist and materials scientist Madalina Furis.

But the basic science of how to get electrons to move quickly and easily in these organic materials remains murky.

To help, Furis and a team of UVM materials scientists have invented a new way to create what they are calling “an electron superhighway” in one of these materials — a low-cost blue dye called phthalocyanine — that promises to allow electrons to flow faster and farther in organic semiconductors.

A Sept. 14, 2015 University of Vermont news release (also on EurekAlert) by Joshua E. Brown, which originated the news item, describes the problem the researches were trying to solve and the solution they found,

Hills and potholes

Many of these types of flexible electronic devices will rely on thin films of organic materials that catch sunlight and convert the light into electric current using excited states in the material called “excitons.” Roughly speaking, an exciton is a displaced electron bound together with the hole it left behind. Increasing the distance these excitons can diffuse — before they reach a juncture where they’re broken apart to produce electrical current — is essential to improving the efficiency of organic semiconductors.

Using a new imaging technique, the UVM team was able to observe nanoscale defects and boundaries in the crystal grains in the thin films of phthalocyanine — roadblocks in the electron highway. “We have discovered that we have hills that electrons have to go over and potholes that they need to avoid,” Furis explains.

To find these defects, the UVM team — with support from the National Science Foundation — built a scanning laser microscope, “as big as a table” Furis says. The instrument combines a specialized form of linearly polarized light and photoluminescence to optically probe the molecular structure of the phthalocyanine crystals.

“Marrying these two techniques together is new; it’s never been reported anywhere,” says Lane Manning ’08 a doctoral student in Furis’ lab and co-author on the new study.

The new technique allows the scientists a deeper understanding of how the arrangement of molecules and the boundaries in the crystals influence the movement of excitons. It’s these boundaries that form a “barrier for exciton diffusion,” the team writes.

And then, with this enhanced view, “this energy barrier can be entirely eliminated,” the team writes. The trick: very carefully controlling how the thin films are deposited. Using a novel “pen-writing” technique with a hollow capillary, the team worked in the lab of UVM physics and materials science professor Randy Headrick to successfully form films with jumbo-sized crystal grains and “small angle boundaries.” Think of these as easy-on ramps onto a highway — instead of an awkward stop sign at the top of a hill — that allow excitons to move far and fast.

Better solar cells

Though the Nature Communications study focused on just one organic material, phthalocyanine, the new research provides a powerful way to explore many other types of organic materials, too — with particular promise for improved solar cells. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report identified one of the fundamental bottlenecks to improved solar power technologies as “determining the mechanisms by which the absorbed energy (exciton) migrates through the system prior to splitting into charges that are converted to electricity.”

The new UVM study — led by two of Furis’ students, Zhenwen Pan G’12, and Naveen Rawat G’15 — opens a window to view how increasing “long-range order” in the organic semiconductor films is a key mechanism that allows excitons to migrate farther. “The molecules are stacked like dishes in a dish rack,” Furis explains, “these stacked molecules — this dish rack — is the electron superhighway.”

Though excitons are neutrally charged — and can’t be pushed by voltage like the electrons flowing in a light bulb — they can, in a sense, bounce from one of these tightly stacked molecules to the next. This allows organic thin films to carry energy along this molecular highway with relative ease, though no net electrical charge is transported.

“One of today’s big challenges is how to make better photovoltaics and solar technologies,” says Furis, who directs UVM’s program in materials science, “and to do that we need a deeper understanding of exciton diffusion. That’s what this research is about.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polarization-resolved spectroscopy imaging of grain boundaries and optical excitations in crystalline organic thin films by Z. Pan, N. Rawat, I. Cour, L. Manning, R. L. Headrick, & M. Furis. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8201 doi:10.1038/ncomms9201 Published 14 September 2015

This is an open access article.

Foldable glass (well, there’s some plastic too)

Michael Berger has written a fascinating Aug. 11, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article on folding glass,

Have you ever heard about foldable glass?


Glass is notorious for its brittleness. Although industry has developed ultra-thin (∼0.1 mm), flexible glass (like Corning’s Willow® Glass) that can be bent for applications liked curved TV and smartphone displays, fully foldable glass had not been demonstrated. Until now.

Khang [Dahl-Young Khang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Yonsei University] and his group have now demonstrated substrate platforms of glass and plastics, which can be reversibly and repeatedly foldable at pre designed location(s) without any mechanical failure or deterioration in device performances.

“We have engineered the substrates to have thinned parts on which the folding deformation should occur,” Moon Jong Han, first author of the paper a graduate student in Khang’s lab, says. “This localizes the deformation strain on those thinned parts only.”

He adds that this approach to engineering substrates has another advantage regarding device materials: “There is no need to adopt any novel materials such as nanowires, carbon nanotubes, graphene, etc. Rather, all the conventional materials that have been used for high-performance devices can be directly applied on our engineered substrates.”

Intriguingly, even ITO (indium tin oxide), a very brittle transparent conducting oxide, can be used as electrode on this novel foldable glass platform.

What makes the approach especially intriguing is the ability to reverse the fold and that it doesn’t require special nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, etc. From Berger’s Aug. 11, 2015 article,

The width of the thinned parts, the gap width, plays the key role in implementing dual foldability. The other key element is the asymmetric design of the gap width for the second folding.

The researchers achieved foldability, in part, by copying a technique used for folding mats and oriental hinge-less screens which have thinned areas to allow folding.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Glass and Plastics Platforms for Foldable Electronics and Displays by Moon Jung Han and Dahl-Young Khang. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501060 First published: 21 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Berger’s article is not only fascinating, it is also illustrated with some images provided by the researchers.

‘Green’, flexible electronics with nanocellulose materials

Bendable or flexible electronics based on nanocellulose paper present a ‘green’ alternative to other solutions according to a May 20, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Technology experts have long predicted the coming age of flexible electronics, and researchers have been working on multiple fronts to reach that goal. But many of the advances rely on petroleum-based plastics and toxic materials. Yu-Zhong Wang, Fei Song and colleagues wanted to seek a “greener” way forward.

The researchers developed a thin, clear nanocellulose paper made out of wood flour and infused it with biocompatible quantum dots — tiny, semiconducting crystals — made out of zinc and selenium. The paper glowed at room temperature and could be rolled and unrolled without cracking.

(h’t Nanotechnology Now, May 20, 2015)

There’s no mention in the news release or abstract as to what material (wood, carrot, banana, etc.) was used to derive the nanocellulose. Regardless, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Let It Shine: A Transparent and Photoluminescent Foldable Nanocellulose/Quantum Dot Paper by Juan Xue, Fei Song, Xue-wu Yin, Xiu-li Wang, and Yu-zhong Wang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2015, 7 (19), pp 10076–10079 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b02011 Publication Date (Web): May 4, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Fully textile-embedded transparent and flexible technology?

There are a lot of research teams jockeying for position in the transparent, flexible electrodes stakes (for anyone unfamiliar with the slang, I’m comparing the competition between various research teams to a horse race). A May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes work from an international collaboration at the University of Exeter (UK), Note: A link has been removed,

An international team of scientists, including Professor Monica Craciun from the University of Exeter, have pioneered a new technique to embed transparent, flexible graphene electrodes into fibres commonly associated with the textile industry.

The discovery could revolutionise the creation of wearable electronic devices, such as clothing containing computers, phones and MP3 players, which are lightweight, durable and easily transportable.

The international collaborative research, which includes experts from the Centre for Graphene Science at the University of Exeter, the Institute for Systems Engineering and Computers, Microsystems and Nanotechnology (INESC-MN) in Lisbon, the Universities of Lisbon and Aveiro in Portugal and the Belgian Textile Research Centre (CenTexBel), is published in the leading scientific journal Scientific Reports (“Transparent conductive graphene textile fibers”).

A May 11, 2015 University of Exeter press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item,  describes the current situation regarding transparent and flexible electrodes in textiles and how the research at Exeter improves the situation,

Professor Craciun, co-author of the research said: “This is a pivotal point in the future of wearable electronic devices. The potential has been there for a number of years, and transparent and flexible electrodes are already widely used in plastics and glass, for example. But this is the first example of a textile electrode being truly embedded in a yarn. The possibilities for its use are endless, including textile GPS systems, to biomedical monitoring, personal security or even communication tools for those who are sensory impaired.  The only limits are really within our own imagination.”

At just one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity. It is very flexible and is one of the strongest known materials. The race has been on for scientists and engineers to adapt graphene for the use in wearable electronic devices in recent years.

This new research has identified that ‘monolayer graphene’, which has exceptional electrical, mechanical and optical properties, make it a highly attractive proposition as a transparent electrode for applications in wearable electronics. In this work graphene was created by a growth method called chemical vapour deposition (CVD) onto copper foil, using a state-of-the-art nanoCVD system recently developed by Moorfield.

The collaborative team established a technique to transfer graphene from the copper foils to a polypropylene fibre already commonly used in the textile industry.

Dr Helena Alves who led the research team from INESC-MN and the University of Aveiro said: “The concept of wearable technology is emerging, but so far having fully textile-embedded transparent and flexible technology is currently non-existing. Therefore, the development of processes and engineering for the integration of graphene in textiles would give rise to a new universe of commercial applications. “

Dr Ana Neves, Associate Research Fellow in Prof Craciun’s team from Exeter’s Engineering Department and former postdoctoral researcher at INESC added: “We are surrounded by fabrics, the carpet floors in our homes or offices, the seats in our cars, and obviously all our garments and clothing accessories. The incorporation of electronic devices on fabrics would certainly be a game-changer in modern technology.

“All electronic devices need wiring, so the first issue to be address in this strategy is the development of conducting textile fibres while keeping the same aspect, comfort and lightness. The methodology that we have developed to prepare transparent and conductive textile fibres by coating them with graphene will now open way to the integration of electronic devices on these textile fibres.”

Dr Isabel De Schrijver,an expert of smart textiles from CenTexBel said: “Successful manufacturing of wearable electronics has the potential for a disruptive technology with a wide array of potential new applications. We are very excited about the potential of this breakthrough and look forward to seeing where it can take the electronics industry in the future.”

Professor Saverio Russo, co-author and also from the University of Exeter, added: “This breakthrough will also nurture the birth of novel and transformative research directions benefitting a wide range of sectors ranging from defence to health care. “

In 2012 Professor Craciun and Professor Russo, from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Graphene Science, discovered GraphExeter – sandwiched molecules of ferric chloride between two graphene layers which makes a whole new system that is the best known transparent material able to conduct electricity.  The same team recently discovered that GraphExeter is also more stable than many transparent conductors commonly used by, for example, the display industry.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Electron transport of WS2 transistors in a hexagonal boron nitride dielectric environment by Freddie Withers, Thomas Hardisty Bointon, David Christopher Hudson, Monica Felicia Craciun, & Saverio Russo. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 4967 doi:10.1038/srep04967 Published 15 May 2014

Did they wait a year to announce the research or is this a second-go-round? In any event, it is an open access paper.

* Added EurekAlert link 1120 hours PDT on May 12, 2015.

Just how bendy are the new organic semiconductors?

In all the excitement about flexible electronics, an interesting question about performance, which seems to have been overlooked until now (how bendy are they?), is being answered by scientists, according to a May 5, 2015 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolution is coming in flexible electronic technologies as cheaper, more flexible, organic transistors come on the scene to replace expensive, rigid, silicone-based semiconductors, but not enough is known about how bending in these new thin-film electronic devices will affect their performance, say materials scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

They are the first to apply inhomogeneous deformations, that is strain, to the conducting channel of an organic transistor and to understand the observed effects, says Reyes-Martinez [Marcos Reyes-Martinez], who conducted the series of experiments as part of his doctoral work.

As he explains, “This is relevant to today’s tech industry because transistors drive the logic of all the consumer electronics we use. In the screen on your smart phone, for example, every little pixel that makes up the image is turned on and off by hundreds of thousands or even millions of miniaturized transistors.”

“Traditionally, the transistors are rigid, made of an inorganic material such as silicon,” he adds. “We’re working with a crystalline semiconductorcalled rubrene, which is an organic, carbon-based material that has performance factors, such as charge-carrier mobility, surpassing those measured in amorphous silicon. Organic semiconductors are an interesting alternative to silicon because their properties can be tuned to make them easily processed, allowing them to coat a variety of surfaces, including soft substrates at relatively low temperatures. As a result, devices based on organic semiconductors are projected to be cheaper since they do not require high temperatures, clean rooms and expensive processing steps like silicon does.”

Until now, Reyes-Martinez notes, most researchers have focused on controlling the detrimental effects of mechanical deformation to atransistor’s electrical properties. But in their series of systematic experiments, the UMass Amherst team discovered that mechanical deformations only decrease performance under certain conditions, and actually can enhance or have no effect in other instances.

“Our goal was not only to show these effects, but to explain and understand them. What we’ve done istake advantage of the ordered structure of ultra-thin organic single crystals of rubrene to fabricate high-perfomance, thin-film transistors,” he says. “This is the first time that anyone has carried out detailed fundamental work at these length scales with a single crystal.”

Though single crystals were once thought to be too fragile for flexible applications, the UMass Amherst team found that crystals ranging in thickness from about 150 nanometers to 1 micrometer were thin enough to be wrinkled and applied to any elastomer substrate. Reyes-Martinez also notes, “Our experiments are especially important because they help scientists working on flexible electronic devices to determine performance limitations of new materials under extreme mechanical deformations, such as when electronic devices conform to skin.”

They developed an analytical model based on plate bending theoryto quantifythe different local strains imposed on the transistor structure by the wrinkle deformations. Using their model they are able to predict how different deformations modulate charge mobility, which no one had quantified before, Reyes-Martinez notes.

These contributions “represent a significant step forward in structure-function relationships in organic semiconductors, critical for the development of the next generation of flexible electronic devices,” the authors point out.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rubrene crystal field-effect mobility modulation via conducting channel wrinkling by Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez, Alfred J. Crosby,  & Alejandro L. Briseno. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6948 doi:10.1038/ncomms7948 Published 05 May 2015

This is an open access paper.

Hyper stretchable nanogenerator

There’s a lot of talk about flexibility, stretchability and bendability in electronics and the latest is coming from Korea. An April 13, 2015 Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST) news release on EurekAlert describes the situation and the Korean scientists’ most recent research into stretchable electronics,

A research team led by Professor Keon Jae Lee of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a hyper-stretchable elastic-composite energy harvesting device called a nanogenerator.

Flexible electronics have come into the market and are enabling new technologies like flexible displays in mobile phone, wearable electronics, and the Internet of Things (IoTs). However, is the degree of flexibility enough for most applications? For many flexible devices, elasticity is a very important issue. For example, wearable/biomedical devices and electronic skins (e-skins) should stretch to conform to arbitrarily curved surfaces and moving body parts such as joints, diaphragms, and tendons. They must be able to withstand the repeated and prolonged mechanical stresses of stretching. In particular, the development of elastic energy devices is regarded as critical to establish power supplies in stretchable applications. Although several researchers have explored diverse stretchable electronics, due to the absence of the appropriate device structures and correspondingly electrodes, researchers have not developed ultra-stretchable and fully-reversible energy conversion devices properly.

Recently, researchers from KAIST and Seoul National University (SNU) have collaborated and demonstrated a facile methodology to obtain a high-performance and hyper-stretchable elastic-composite generator (SEG) using very long silver nanowire-based stretchable electrodes. Their stretchable piezoelectric generator can harvest mechanical energy to produce high power output (~4 V) with large elasticity (~250%) and excellent durability (over 104 cycles). These noteworthy results were achieved by the non-destructive stress- relaxation ability of the unique electrodes as well as the good piezoelectricity of the device components. The new SEG can be applied to a wide-variety of wearable energy-harvesters to transduce biomechanical-stretching energy from the body (or machines) to electrical energy.

Professor Lee said, “This exciting approach introduces an ultra-stretchable piezoelectric generator. It can open avenues for power supplies in universal wearable and biomedical applications as well as self-powered ultra-stretchable electronics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Hyper-Stretchable Elastic-Composite Energy Harvester by Chang Kyu Jeong, Jinhwan Lee, Seungyong Han, Jungho Ryu, Geon-Tae Hwang, Dae Yong Park, Jung Hwan Park, Seung Seob Lee, Mynghwan Byun, Seung Hwan Ko, and Keon Jae Lee. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201500367 30 March 2015Full

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have prepared a short video (22 secs. and silent),

3D printing soft robots and flexible electronics with metal alloys

This research comes from Purdue University (Indiana, US) which seems to be on a publishing binge these days. From an April 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

New research shows how inkjet-printing technology can be used to mass-produce electronic circuits made of liquid-metal alloys for “soft robots” and flexible electronics.

Elastic technologies could make possible a new class of pliable robots and stretchable garments that people might wear to interact with computers or for therapeutic purposes. However, new manufacturing techniques must be developed before soft machines become commercially feasible, said Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

“We want to create stretchable electronics that might be compatible with soft machines, such as robots that need to squeeze through small spaces, or wearable technologies that aren’t restrictive of motion,” she said. “Conductors made from liquid metal can stretch and deform without breaking.”

A new potential manufacturing approach focuses on harnessing inkjet printing to create devices made of liquid alloys.

“This process now allows us to print flexible and stretchable conductors onto anything, including elastic materials and fabrics,” Kramer said.

An April 7, 2015 Purdue University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Emil Venere, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

A research paper about the method will appear on April 18 [2015] in the journal Advanced Materials. The paper generally introduces the method, called mechanically sintered gallium-indium nanoparticles, and describes research leading up to the project. It was authored by postdoctoral researcher John William Boley, graduate student Edward L. White and Kramer.

A printable ink is made by dispersing the liquid metal in a non-metallic solvent using ultrasound, which breaks up the bulk liquid metal into nanoparticles. This nanoparticle-filled ink is compatible with inkjet printing.

“Liquid metal in its native form is not inkjet-able,” Kramer said. “So what we do is create liquid metal nanoparticles that are small enough to pass through an inkjet nozzle. Sonicating liquid metal in a carrier solvent, such as ethanol, both creates the nanoparticles and disperses them in the solvent. Then we can print the ink onto any substrate. The ethanol evaporates away so we are just left with liquid metal nanoparticles on a surface.”

After printing, the nanoparticles must be rejoined by applying light pressure, which renders the material conductive. This step is necessary because the liquid-metal nanoparticles are initially coated with oxidized gallium, which acts as a skin that prevents electrical conductivity.

“But it’s a fragile skin, so when you apply pressure it breaks the skin and everything coalesces into one uniform film,” Kramer said. “We can do this either by stamping or by dragging something across the surface, such as the sharp edge of a silicon tip.”

The approach makes it possible to select which portions to activate depending on particular designs, suggesting that a blank film might be manufactured for a multitude of potential applications.

“We selectively activate what electronics we want to turn on by applying pressure to just those areas,” said Kramer, who this year was awarded an Early Career Development award from the National Science Foundation, which supports research to determine how to best develop the liquid-metal ink.

The process could make it possible to rapidly mass-produce large quantities of the film.

Future research will explore how the interaction between the ink and the surface being printed on might be conducive to the production of specific types of devices.

“For example, how do the nanoparticles orient themselves on hydrophobic versus hydrophilic surfaces? How can we formulate the ink and exploit its interaction with a surface to enable self-assembly of the particles?” she said.

The researchers also will study and model how individual particles rupture when pressure is applied, providing information that could allow the manufacture of ultrathin traces and new types of sensors.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanoparticles: Mechanically Sintered Gallium–Indium Nanoparticles by John William Boley, Edward L. White and Rebecca K. Kramer. Advanced Materials Volume 27, Issue 14, page 2270, April 8, 2015 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201570094 Article first published online: 7 APR 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

Think of your skin as a smartphone

A March 5, 2015 news item on Azonano highlights work on flexible, transparent electronics designed to adhere to your skin,

Someone wearing a smartwatch can look at a calendar or receive e-mails without having to reach further than their wrist. However, the interaction area offered by the watch face is both fixed and small, making it difficult to actually hit individual buttons with adequate precision. A method currently being developed by a team of computer scientists from Saarbrücken in collaboration with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA may provide a solution to this problem. They have developed touch-sensitive stickers made from flexible silicone and electrically conducting sensors that can be worn on the skin.

Here’s what the sticker looks like,

Caption: The stickers are skin-friendly and are attached to the skin with a biocompatible, medical-grade adhesive. Credit: Oliver Dietze

Caption: The stickers are skin-friendly and are attached to the skin with a biocompatible, medical-grade adhesive. Credit: Oliver Dietze Courtesy: Saarland University

A March 4, 2015 University of Saarland press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme on connecting technology to the body,

… The stickers can act as an input space that receives and executes commands and thus controls mobile devices. Depending on the type of skin sticker used, applying pressure to the sticker could, for example, answer an incoming call or adjust the volume of a music player. ‘The stickers allow us to enlarge the input space accessible to the user as they can be attached practically anywhere on the body,’ explains Martin Weigel, a PhD student in the team led by Jürgen Steimle at the Cluster of Excellence at Saarland University. The ‘iSkin’ approach enables the human body to become more closely connected to technology. [emphasis mine]

Users can also design their iSkin patches on a computer beforehand to suit their individual tastes. ‘A simple graphics program is all you need,’ says Weigel. One sticker, for instance, is based on musical notation, another is circular in shape like an LP. The silicone used to fabricate the sensor patches makes them flexible and stretchable. ‘This makes them easier to use in an everyday environment. The music player can simply be rolled up and put in a pocket,’ explains Jürgen Steimle, who heads the ‘Embodied Interaction Group’ in which Weigel is doing his research. ‘They are also skin-friendly, as they are attached to the skin with a biocompatible, medical-grade adhesive. Users can therefore decide where they want to position the sensor patch and how long they want to wear it.’

In addition to controlling music or phone calls, the iSkin technology could be used for many other applications. For example, a keyboard sticker could be used to type and send messages. Currently the sensor stickers are connected via cable to a computer system. According to Steimle, in-built microchips may in future allow the skin-worn sensor patches to communicate wirelessly with other mobile devices.

The publication about ‘iSkin’ won the ‘Best Paper Award’ at the SIGCHI conference, which ranks among the most important conferences within the research area of human computer interaction. The researchers will present their project at the SIGCHI conference in April [2015] in Seoul, Korea, and beforehand at the computer expo Cebit, which takes place from the 16th until the 20th of March [2015] in Hannover (hall 9, booth E13).

Hopefully, you’ll have a chance to catch researchers’ presentation at the SIGCHI or Cebit events.

That quote about enabling “the human body to become more closely connected to technology” reminds me of a tag (machine/flesh) I created to categorize research of this nature. I explained the idea being explored in a May 9, 2012 posting titled: Everything becomes part machine,

Machine/flesh. That’s what I’ve taken to calling this process of integrating machinery into our and, as I newly realized, other animals’ flesh.

I think my latest previous post on this topic was a Jan. 10, 2014 post titled: Chemistry of Cyborgs: review of the state of the art by German researchers.