The electronic devices we use everyday often seem indispensable, yet they can hardly be called reliable. When was the last time you kept a laptop or smartphone for more than three or four years before tossing it onto our ever-growing e-waste pile? The problem is that ever-more complex gadgets force engineers to pack more density onto chips—a practice that can cause reliability issues and even shut down devices. This is an even bigger issue for expensive electronic devices (think instruments used for space and military applications), where an electrical failure can mean millions of dollars lost.
Engineers at the University of Illinois may have a solution with a self-healing system that quickly jump-starts electrical conductivity in cracked circuits.
It’s a seemingly straightforward solution to a complex problem. The researchers discovered that by placing tiny microcapsules filled with liquid metal on a gold line that acts as a circuit, they can ensure that electrical flow is quickly restored if the circuit cracks. When a crack grows, the microcapsules open and disperse the liquid metal, filling up the gap and restarting electrical flow. Electrical flow is interrupted for just a few microseconds, and original conductivity is almost entirely restored, according to Nanotechnology Now.
"In an aircraft, especially a defense-based aircraft, there are miles and miles of conductive wire," explained materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos in a statement. "You don’t often know where the break occurs. The autonomous part is nice—it knows where it broke, even if we don’t."
Next up for the engineers: using the self-healing technology to improve battery life and safety. By the time these scientists are done, we may not actually mind keeping our tablets and laptops for half a decade or longer—new gadget fetishists notwithstanding.