Many hundreds of thousands across the world suffer from chronic illnesses and diseases which require constant monitoring. Often the only way to conduct these medical check-ups is with frequent visits to hospitals or clinics and repetitive, time-consuming tests. In the last several years there has been a host of devices and research to try and combat this constant drain on the worlds already stretched-thin health services, such as t-shirts made from smart-fabrics which can collate data from the heart and respiratory system.
What many see as the ultimate solution to this growing problem are medical devices capable of being easily implanted into patients’ bodies. Once implanted, the device would monitor vital signs and transmit them back to the patient’s doctor. Though the theory works well, the one stumbling block holding back further development has been the fact that electronics themselves are too rigid, but not any longer.
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Researchers from the Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering have now developed a design that allows electronics to bend and stretch more than 200 percent their original size, four times greater than was currently possible. Over the last five years the team has struggled to overcome the loss of conductivity when electronics become stretchable, often dropping as much as 100 times.
Yonggang Huang, Joseph Cummings Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Medical Engineering, commented:
“This conductivity loss really defeats the point of stretchable electronics.”
“With current technology, electronics are able to stretch a small amount, but many potential applications require a device to stretch like a rubber band. With that level of stretchability we could see medical devices integrated into the human body.”
The solution to this challenge lay in the combination of a porous polymer and liquid metal, creating a material that is both highly stretchable and extremely conductive.
“By combining a liquid metal in a porous polymer, we achieved 200 percent stretchability in a material that does not suffer from stretch. Once you achieve that technology, any electronic can behave like a rubber band.”
The research team from the McCormick School of Engineering worked in partnership with scientists from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, the Dalian University of Technology in China and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign.
A paper detailing the findings can be found in the science journal Nature Communications