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Technology: The Next Generation of Electronics will be Soft

By Dick Weisinger

Jie Xu, assistant scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, told Newsweek that “the next generation of electronics is not going to be rigid anymore. It’s going to be soft, comfortable. It can even be biocompatible, like our tissue or skin.” Flexible devices have applications as wearable devices, for virtual reality interfaces, medical monitors and motion-sensing devices.

Xu said that “the killer applications are technologies like robotics or prosthetics with skin-like, electronic, functional coverings, and also soft medical sensors that we can put on our skin or implant into our bodies without any immune response.”

One metal in particular stands out as being a key component in developing “soft electronics” is gallium.

By harnessing the unusual properties of a liquid metal called gallium, materials scientists aim to create a new generation of flexible devices for virtual reality interfaces, medical monitors, motion-sensing devices and more.

Researchers have called gallium “the Devil’s Elixir” and declared it to be the most interesting element in the periodic table. “Gallium is a metal that literally melts in your hand. It has low toxicity, near-zero vapor pressure, and a viscosity similar to water. Despite possessing a surface tension larger than any other liquid (near room temperature), gallium can form nonspherical shapes due to the thin, solid native oxide skin that forms rapidly in oxygen. These properties enable new ways to pattern metals (e.g., injection and printing) to create stretchable and soft devices with an unmatched combination of mechanical and electrical properties. The oxide skin can be transferred to other substrates and manipulated electrochemically to lower the interfacial tension to near zero. The reactivity of gallium can drive a wide range of reactions. The liquid state of gallium makes it easy to break into particles for making colloids and soft composites that have unusual properties due to the deformable nature of the filler.”

Gallium is expected to be a key enabler for the new branch of technology called “soft electronics”.

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