A team of engineers at the University of California have created a conductive mixture that, when printed, can self-heal if damaged. Is this the first step into self-healing electronics?

Current technology and manufacturing techniques make modern consumer life very convenient. When devices break, it is easier for most to throw the old device away and purchase a new one instead of getting it repaired. Innovations like cloud storage remove the need to transfer files to and from devices. Constant development in silicon technology make devices constantly cheaper. And with online shopping, most items can be purchased online and delivered without ever needing to leave the house.

If, however, someone told you that, instead of replacing a broken device, you could wait an hour and the device would be back in operation. Would there be a need to replace that broken item?

 

E-Waste is a growing problem with faulty devices being thrown away. Image courtesy of Richard Dorrell [CC BY-SA 2.0]

 

Self-Repairing Printable Electronics

Engineers at the University of California San Diego led by Amay Bandodkar have created a special conductive mixture that can repair itself and continue to function when cut. The team's goal was to create a material that is conductive and can self-heal while keeping costs low and complexity to a minimum.

The mixture has a simple composition that consists of a conductive material (in this case, graphite was used but gold is also an option) and a magnetic material. The magnetic material was obtained from common neodymium magnets which are found in many consumer products such as headphones, mobile phones, and telephones.

Once the mixture is printed, the substance is exposed to a high-intensity electromagnetic field which forces all the magnetic particles to align in the same direction. When the material is snapped, cut, or fractured, the material pieces attract each other and thus repair the original break.

 

 

The contact at the fracture point is fully conductive and allows for normal operation. This was demonstrated with an LED and a battery where the LED was on during normal operation and then turns off when the material is fractured. After a few seconds, the LED turns back on because the material has repaired the damage.

 

Possible Applications

Electronics that could self-heal would bring about a revolution in autonomous applications and environments which are too dangerous for people to be exposed to. One strong candidate would be space flight and probes that are sent to distant celestial bodies.

Some space-faring crafts experience issues post-launch. Some of these crafts have astronauts that can fix problems, in person—see, for example, the Apollo 13 mission.Other crafts are unmanned, like the European probe, Beagle 2. In Beagle 2's case, communication with the lander could not be established and thus the mission was marked as a failure. Evidence in 2015 suggested that some of the solar panels did not open up, which blocked the Beagles communication array.

Any number of issues could have caused Beagle 2's issues, but imagine for a moment that it had been something like a broken PCB trace or faulty wire that resulted in a crucial signal not being detected by the main onboard computer. A self-healing wire or component could have fixed the issue even in the absence of an engineer, potentially saving billions of dollars.

But the application extends to all probes and satellites in space where failures are not uncommon. Instead of needing to rely on shuttle services to fix damaged systems, self-repairing devices could extend working life and increase reliability in a world increasingly dependent on communication.

 

Applications for printed electronics could extend all the way into space! Image courtesy of SpaceX.

 

Self-healing devices would also be advantageous in environments that are harmful to humans. One example would be the Fukushima nuclear disaster that relied on human intervention to clean up and contain the ejected nuclear material.

While drones and robotics could be used to handle the most dangerous materials, you are still risking damage to the devices or tools that are sent in to fix a problem. With self-repairing parts, it could be possible for breaches in devices to mend themselves, reducing the risk to drone and human alike.

 

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Summary

The concept of self-healing printed electronics gives rise to many possibilities and technological advances. Devices that self-heal could become less dependent on people and could even upgrade themselves without the need for human intervention.

Self-healing technology may even find applications in artificial intelligence where new connections are constantly needed. With increasing use of printed electronics in everyday manufacturing, it may not be long before we find self-healing parts in consumer goods in general.

 

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