Compared to living things like animals or plants, today’s electronic devices are quite fragile. Even minor “injuries” render them incapacitated, or limit their functionality. Sometimes they can be repaired, although this requires intervention by skilled and motivated humans.
In this paper, the authors report on research with self-healing materials and their potential for building devices that can recover from both mechanical and electrical damage. Using layers of different materials, they were able to fabricate soft-bodied interface devices that can self-heal repeatedly, act as sensors to pick up data from the environment, and also act as actuators that modify the environment to some degree.
While materials with similar properties have been researched for some time, their practical use has encountered obstacles such as fragility, difficult fabrication processes, bonding with other materials, and electrical connections with conventional electronics.
A polymer, polyborosiloxane (PBS), serves as the starting point due to desirable properties such as an intrinsic and autonomous self-healing capacity, relatively simple and safe fabrication processes, long lifetime, the option of adjusting its mechanical properties, and compatibility with both human skin and commonly used materials for devices. Electrical conductivity is achieved by incorporating multi-walled carbon nanotubes as filler material, allowing fine-tuning of electrical performance by varying the ratio between the two materials.
While I do not expect my next smartphone to be self-healing, such a material may lead to more durable devices. Because it is also soft, it opens new avenues to interactions with devices that literally feel more natural than the slabs of metal and plastic we are used to now.