Shape-morphing, self-healing elastomer reacts to external stimuli

October 16, 2019 //By Julien Happich
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a new class of stretchable conductive material that can change shape upon thermal or electrical stimuli. They anticipate that such a material could be used in soft robotics or wearables as actuators.

The findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “A multifunctional shape morphing elastomer with liquid metal inclusions" relate to a composite material comprising a mixture liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) with inclusions of deformable liquid metal micro- and nano-droplets of gallium indium.

While the LCEs move when they are exposed to heat, the liquid metal micro- and nano-droplets makes the composite thermally and electrically conductive.

"It is not only thermally and electrically conductive, it is also intelligent," explains Carmel Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who directs the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon. "Just like a human recoils when touching something hot or sharp, the material senses, processes, and responds to its environment without any external hardware. Because it has neural-like electrical pathways, it is one step closer to artificial nervous tissue."

Another key feature of the material is its resilience and response to significant damage. "We observed both electrical self-healing and damage detection capabilities for this composite, but the damage detection went one step further than previous liquid metal composites," explained Michael Ford, a postdoctoral research associate in the Soft Machines Lab and the lead author of the study. "Since the damage creates new conductive traces that can activate shape-morphing, the composite uniquely responds to damage."

The material's high electrical conductivity allows the composite to interface with traditional electronics, respond dynamically to touch, and change shape reversibly. It could be used in any application that requires stretchable electronics: healthcare, clothing, wearable computing, assistance devices and robots, and space travel.

Carnegie Mellon University -

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