How Bendable Electronics Stretch Medical Technology

How Bendable Electronics Stretch Medical Technology

Researchers developed highly elastic electronics that keep maximum conductivity when stretched, paving the way for bendable smartphones and medical devices.

Scientists at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering joined a porous polymer with liquid metal to create electronics that can stretch by over 200 percent of their original size. The international team first manufactured a polymer-based, porous substance capable of stretching to nearly three times its original size. Then they put liquid metal inside the pores, allowing electricity to flow at the same rate even when the material stretched.

This is a vast improvement over past attempts, which only produced 50 percent elasticity and eliminated nearly all conductivity in the process.

“Once you achieve that technology, any electronic can behave like a rubber band,” explained Northwestern engineering professor Yonggang Huang, who headed the project.

“With current technology, electronics are able to stretch a small amount, but many potential applications require a device to stretch like a rubber band,” he continued. “With that level of stretchability we could see medical devices integrated into the human body.”

Huang’s comment hints at future medical applications for his team’s invention, which may also change the face of mobile electronics.

Elastic electronics will be a godsend for those with pacemakers, insulin pumps and other implanted medical equipment. These devices are traditionally non-bendable, making it difficult for patients who use them to lead completely normal lives.

The military may also find Huang’s technology useful for its nano-sensors, which it plans to implant as health monitors in soldiers. These tiny electronics stand less risk of accidentally puncturing a vein if they are able to bend with peoples’ movements.

In the mobile communications sphere, Northwestern’s technology may hasten the development of bendable phones and screens, which many companies are already in the process of creating and refining.

Elastic screens like the XSense, created by hardware manufacturer Amtel, can already bend and twist without losing resolution. Its polyethylene terephthalate construction may allow XSense to wrap around household objects like coffee pots or watches, lending them the benefits of a touchscreen.

If combined with Huang’s innovation, XSense will likely spawn a whole new breed of flexible touchscreens built on equally elastic electronic components, making for a rubber band-like phone or tablet.

And the flexible liquid metal used in Northwestern’s creation may also prove useful for Apple’s iPhone 5. Reports suggest the handset will feature the compound alloy in its construction, likely making the phone ultra smooth and durable.

Bendable smartphones are nothing new, as Nokia has been developing flexible chips and touchscreens for over two years. But, where the Finnish company has so far failed to wow consumers with its technology, the McCormick team may succeed. Its product appears to solve the conductivity problem better than any past attempt, suggesting bendable electronics may hit the market sooner than expected.

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