Unbreakable Cell Phones, Tablets and Other Gadgets

Self-healing electronics. Microcapsules full of liquid metal sit atop a gold circuit. (Top) When the circuit is broken, the microcapsules rupture (center), filling in the crack and restoring the circuit (bottom). | Graphic by Scott White

It’s happened to all of us. We’ve all dropped a cell phone or sat on an iPod only to hear a small crunch and suddenly become the proud new owners of a really cool looking paper weight. And when you go to try to get it repaired, you find out that it’s cheaper to simply buy a new one. The circuitry to difficult to get to and the damage not easily traced.

Of course, this is a huge waste. The amount of excess garbage damaged electronics makes up is too much, even if it were just a little. It cuts into our pocketbooks and poses threats to our environment. But what if there were a way for the electronics to fix themselves? And what if they did it in a blink of an eye without us ever having to lift a finger?

Such is the idea of University of Illinois aerospace engineering professor Scott White and materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos. Their new paper featured in Advanced Materials shows that they’ve taken the first steps to do just that.

The type of damage they have demonstrated the ability to fix is a crack. When even the smallest hairline fracture propagates through a circuit, it can cut off one side from the other. Now, the team has shown that tiny capsules of liquid metal (gallium-indium) can fix the problem in less than a millisecond.

The cracks responsible for the break in the circuit also break open the nearby capsule, which oozes conductive material into the crack. The pathway is restored and your iPod is no longer broken. Not that you even realized it was broken to begin with.

Aside from consumer electronics, this technology has obvious applications in defense and space travel. If you think it’s difficult to get to a damaged circuit in your mobile phone, try figuring out where the break is in miles of circuits on board a spacecraft travelling 7,000 miles per hour in geosynchronous Earth orbit.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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