Stretchable electronics that can be twisted or elongated may soon be used to power in-vehicle systems, medical devices and other products.
However these materials often are faced with overcoming mismatches between the flexible elastomer base—flexible material with high elasticity that can be bent, stretched, buckled or twisted with little effect on its performance—and the electronic conductors.
Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology have developed a type of conductor that can be built or set into the surface of the elastomer using additive manufacturing. They hope to one day make stretchable electronics more prevalent in the market.
The researchers believe stretchable electronics could one day replace the brittle circuit board that powers many electronics devices. The stretchable material could create new options for wearable sensors that adhere to the skin to monitor heart rate or brain activity, or sensors in clothing or thin solar panels that could be plastered onto curved surfaces.
Additive manufacturing—using metals, ceramics and other materials to create 3-D objects layer by layer—is playing an important role in the technology being developed by Missouri University. Scientists believe they could print very thin layers of highly conductive materials onto an elastomer surface—an economical approach to creating these new devices.
The researchers tested the approach in a process called “direct aerosol printing” that involved spraying a conductive material and integrating it with a stretchable substrate to develop sensors that can be placed on the skin. Direct printing would satisfy the high requirements for patterning techniques needed in these complex and stretchable devices.
While additive manufacturing could lead to cost-effective and scalable fabrication of stretchable electronics, other challenges remain, including the development of stretchable batteries that can store energy and the need to ensure that stretchable electronics and the malleable surfaces they are built on perform and age well together.