Wearable tech 3.0 on the horizon thanks to inkjet-printed circuits

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A forthcoming research paper to be published on April 18 in the journal of Advanced Materials details the work of a group of Purdue University scientists who have found a way to modify an inkjet printer that can apply stretchable circuits onto almost any pliable surface.

Although research around soft robotics and stretchable circuits has been a round for a while, current methods for the production of elastic circuits are often limited, costly and slow. Thanks to Purdue University postdoctoral researcher John William Boley, graduate student Edward L. White and assistant professor of mechanical engineering Rebecca Kramer, the mass production of elastic technologies is finally nearing reality, allowing for the development of a new class of pliable garments and soft robotics that demands a whole new approach to the way we think about how these technologies will be put to use.

We want to create stretchable electronics that might be compatible with soft machines, such as robots that need to squeeze through small spaces, or wearable technologies that aren’t restrictive of motion. Conductors made from liquid metal can stretch and deform without breaking. This process now allows us to print flexible and stretchable conductors onto anything, including elastic materials and fabricsRebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering

If these researchers are successful in refining their inkjet-printed circuit technology, then this will no doubt be as disruptive of an innovation as smartphones were beginning in the 90s and early 2000s.

Inkjet-printed circuits in action

The inkjet-printed circuit method first involves taking liquid metal and turning it into nanoparticles through a process called “mechanically sintered gallium-indium nanoparticles.” According to Engadget, this is “made possible by immersing the alloy into a solvent such as ethanol and subjecting the mixture to ultrasound in order to disperse the liquid metal.” Once the process of conversion is complete, these liquid nanoparticles are now “small enough to pass through an inkjet nozzle.” The next step, explains Kramer, is to”sonicat[e]liquid metal in a carrier solvent, such as ethanol, [that]both creates the nanoparticles and disperses them in the solvent.”

Once the solvent evaporates, only the liquid metal nanoparticles remain along with a special type of coating called oxidized gallium that functions like a sort of “skin” that prevents electrical conductivity. The electrical conductivity is activated by applying light pressure, which is what future designers will experiment with to create wearables that bend, fold and stretch across and within any surface or material.

Leave a comment telling us what kinds of products you’d like to see courtesy of inkjet-printed circuit technology.

(Feature image credit: Alex Bottiglio/Purdue University)

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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