Stretchable electronics have the electrical properties of their rigid predecessors but with the added ability to stretch, compress and twist. After more than a decade of academic research at institutions around the world, these elastic electronics are starting to be commercialized. They can be used for robots, consumer gadgets, medical devices, car parts, and even fashion, sports and beauty. Just like any emerging technology, some of the most exciting applications haven’t been invented yet.
How Stretchable Electronics Work
There are several different approaches to the technology. The first commercialized elastic electronics are made by altering the structure of silicon, the semiconductor that is used in most electronic devices. A researcher named John Rogers first demonstrated stretchy silicon at the University of Illinois by cutting a thin layer of the material into patterns to allow it to expand and contract.
Another technique uses liquid metals that can be used as ink to print integrated circuits onto flexible materials. Additionally, some researchers have focused on chemistry, by changing the molecular structure of organic materials to make them elastic. Stretchable components can be combined with a microchip and a near-field communication antenna to wirelessly communicate with a nearby device, such as a smartphone.
Many Industries Will Benefit
Although this technology is still relatively new, it could potentially be introduced into a variety of industries. Medical professionals are especially interested in using it to make smart skin patches for research and patient monitoring. Artificial skin could be used to help burn victims recover. It could also be used to make tiny, implantable medical devices.
Even in its most basic form, an electronic skin patch could be very helpful. A “smart” Band-Aid or temporary tattoo could be embedded with a suite of sensors to monitor a patient’s physiological markers such as pH levels, heart rate and electrical activity in the brain.
Stretchable electronics will likely blur the lines between market segments that have traditionally been considered unrelated, such as consumer electronics and the fashion industry. Wearable devices such as smart watches could become elastic so they could be worn in places other than the wrist. Electronics could be woven right into fabric (just like elastic is today) to make smart garments for athletic teams, military uniforms or consumer novelty items.
Smart patches are already being sold along with skincare treatments. Last year, La Roche-Posay sunscreen was sold with electronic stickers to monitor UV exposure, and soon moisturizers could come with similar stickers for measuring the skin’s hydration levels.
Medical and military groups could use stretchable electronic devices on prosthetic limbs. The smart skin could be stretched over prostheses to give amputees an artificial sense of touch.
Athletes could wear smart patches for more precise physical conditioning, training and injury prevention. For example, the patches could monitor an athlete’s hydration or measure muscle movement.
Industrial settings will also benefit. Stretchable electronic components could be used to make soft robots, which are safer and more flexible than traditional metal robots. A thin layer of electronic material could be applied to existing industrial machines or auto parts to gather data about the work they are doing or to automate routine maintenance checks.
Stretchable electronics are still in the early stages of commercialization, and research development isn’t over yet. Engineers continue to improve the design while various industries are introduced to this innovative new technology.