Self-healing liquid-metal elastomers

Self-healing liquid-metal

Self-healing liquid-metal elastomers

Soft electronics are increasingly in demand for diverse applications, but they lack rigid enclosures and are therefore susceptible to premature disposal after electronic applications. It is therefore necessary to create soft and stretchable materials with resilient and regenerative properties. Skin-like electronics that can stretch up to 1200 percent strain with minimal change in electrical resistant can retain electrical conductivity. In a new study, Ravi Tutika and colleagues in Mechanical Engineering in the U.S., developed soft composites with adaptive liquid metal microstructures for a range of applications in practice.

Biologically inspired applications in the lab.

Soft electronics form important components across emerging fields including wearable electronics to prevent sustained damage and create tunable systems that survive diverse application spaces. Robust electronics are self-healing and damage tolerant; therefore, researchers aim to build regenerative functions for biologically inspired, recyclable applications in the lab. Scientists have already developed transient electronics that dissolve after a period of time with geometrically patterned conductors for stretchability. Liquid metal-based electronics can also be manually repaired and formed using discrete  droplets with scribing/writing or laser sintering. In this work, Tutika et al. developed a liquid metal-elastomer composite as a regenerative soft platform by reconfiguring the liquid metal droplet microstructure. The regenerative electronics developed in this work, presents a tunable platform for resilient and recyclable circuits with diverse applications.

Developing the material

To prepare the elastomer, Tutika et al. added polybutadiene (PBD) as a plasticizer for mechanical and embossing properties. The plasticizer displayed several key characteristics including a soft, highly malleable, tough microstructure with recyclable properties. The team used a solution processing approach to dissolve the solid pellets in toluene and then added plasticizer into the mix. They also added liquid metal to the solution to create an amalgamate of micron-sized liquid metal droplets. The team then calculated the initial electrical conductivity of the setup and highlighted the electrical performance of the composite conductors. The synchronous setup allowed them to tune the resistance and applied load. The method facilitated the development of highly stretchable resistors with a nearly constant resistance. To demonstrate their function, Tutika et al. also created an LED circuit and interfaced the composites with rigid electrical components.

The scientists then used the materials to conduct conductive traces and to perform tensile tests. The results highlighted the embossed conductive traces as promising candidates for soft circuit wiring, the material also showed self-healing properties in rugged environments due to its robustness. To build the soft circuit, the team used conductive traces made on a liquid metal-elastomer-plasticizer composite sheet at predetermined locations with 3D printed molds. During the experiments, Tutika et al. showed how the constructs retained  and mechanical strength. The dissolvable nature of the polymer in toluene allowed the circuit to be reconfigurable for practical applications with LED light sources. The setup provided an important feature of the non-destructive composite system. The thermoplasticity of the material coupled with the liquid nature of the metallic material also allowed Tutika et al. to effectively recycle and reuse the composites. The recycled samples were electrically insulating, and they can be recycled as composites to create electrical circuits. The team showed this capability by creating functional LED circuits to indicate the reliability of electrical connections in the pristine, recyclable material samples.

Outlook

In this way, Ravi Tutika and colleagues developed self-healing and recyclable  that can be stretched to high strains for robust functionalities across emerging fields of soft and stretchable electronics. The research is relevant for soft functional materials, where a single multifunctional composite system can maintain properties for soft electronics, including robust stretchability, healing capacity and recyclability. During the development of the material constructs, the team used unique liquid phase inclusions to reconfigure the microstructure of the material and form robust liquid metal networks to build resilient and regenerative electronics. The material is also applicable for diverse functionalities, allowing materials scientists to reduce electronic waste alongside improved recyclability.

Source:Self-healing liquid metal composite for reconfigurable and recyclable soft electronics, Tutika R. et al. Communications Materialsdoi.org/10.1038/s43246-021-00169-4

Bartlett M.D. et al. Self-healing materials for soft-matter machines and electronics, NPG Asia Materialsdoi.org/10.1038/s41427-019-0122-1

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