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Self-healing electronics now a reality!

Posted: 23 Dec 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electrical circuit  chip  liquid metal  electronic devices  research 

When one tiny circuit within an integrated chip cracks or fails, the whole chip – or even the whole device – is a loss. But what if it could fix itself, and fix itself so fast that the user never knew there was a problem?

A team of University of Illinois engineers has developed a self-healing system that restores electrical conductivity to a cracked circuit in less time than it takes to blink.

Led by aerospace engineering professor Scott White and materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos, the researchers published their results in the journal Advanced Materials.

"It simplifies the system," said chemistry professor Jeffrey Moore, a co-author of the paper. "Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself."

As electronic devices are evolving to perform more sophisticated tasks, manufacturers are packing as much density onto a chip as possible. However, such density compounds reliability problems, such as failure stemming from fluctuating temperature cycles as the device operates or fatigue. A failure at any point in the circuit can shut down the whole device.

Self-healing electronics

Self-healing electronics. Microcapsules full of liquid metal sit atop a gold circuit. When the circuit is broken, the microcapsules rupture, filling in the crack and restoring the circuit.

"In general there's not much avenue for manual repair," Sottos said. "Sometimes you just can't get to the inside. In a multi-layer integrated circuit, there's no opening it up. Normally you just replace the whole chip. It's true for a battery too. You can't pull a battery apart and try to find the source of the failure."

Most consumer devices are meant to be replaced with some frequency, adding to electronic waste issues, but in many important applications – such as instruments or vehicles for space or military functions – electrical failures cannot be replaced or repaired.

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