Researchers hope to extend the life of electronic devices by enabling circuits to fix faults as they occur.
However good we get at recycling them, there could be a much smarter solution when appliances stop working: self-healing electronics. Researchers at the University of Illiniois think it could cut down hugely on the waste – and frustration – of all those bits of kit that fail just because a connection has broken on a printed circuit.
The breakthrough was pioneered by a research team led by Nancy Sottos, a professor specialising in autonomous materials at the University of Illinois.
Chemists and aerospace engineers worked alongside materials scientists on a series of experiments on self-repairing polymers, batteries, and then electronic devices. Their innovation was to embed a line of tiny microcapsules along the length of each line in each circuit. The kind of stress or bump that's all too prone to break the circuit would simultaneously break the microcapsule at the same point, releasing a little stream of liquid metal that would flow into the crack and heal it. No need even to trace the fault, let alone dismantle the device to get at an inaccessible circuit and see if there's any way to fix it.
Sotto's team found in their tests that nine out of ten cracked circuits were successfully fixed, restoring 99% of their connectivity, within a matter of microseconds. Could this spell the end of dud batteries and failed computer chips? How much of a price premium would you pay for a device endowed with such self-healing powers? Only time, and the market, will tell whether this technology will end up confined to 'high end' applications like spacecraft, where repair costs are astronomic. But those with a throw-away attitude to broken electronics have been put on notice: things don't have to be that way. – Roger East
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