By Mark Waghorn
Smartphones and medical devices could soon be assembled just like Lego.
A ‘one-size-fits-all’ connector has been developed that makes assembling complex machinery as simple as the popular construction toy.
It opens the door to cheaper and better iPads, fitness trackers, blood pressure monitors and pacemakers. Everyday gadgets require several components with different material characteristics – ranging from soft to rigid.
Project leader Professor Chen Xiaodong, of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, said: “Our breakthrough innovation makes it very easy to form and use a stretchable device since it works like a universal connector.”
Named BIND (biphasic, nano-dispersed interface), it works by pressing them together – just like the plastic building blocks.
Prof Xiaodong said: “It provides excellent mechanical and electrical performance.
“Any electronic module bearing the BIND interface can be connected simply by pressing them together for less than 10 seconds.
“Moreover, we do away with the cumbersome process of building customized interfaces for specific systems, which we believe will help accelerate the development of stretchable devices.”
Manufacturers will ‘plug-and-play’ the bits together according to their designs – making the process much more convenient.
Current commercial pastes or glues used to connect modules often either fail to transmit signals reliably or damage easily. Custom-built alternatives with enough strength to perform their tasks have been a long-standing challenge.
In experiments, modules joined by BIND were able to withstand stretching of up to seven times their original length before breaking.
The electrical transmission also remained almost three times as robust. The study, published in the journal Nature, found it was 60 times tougher than conventional connectors.
Co-author Dr. Jiang Ying, also from NTU, said: “These impressive results prove our interface can be used to build highly functional and reliable wearable devices or soft robots.
“For example, it can be used in high-quality wearable fitness trackers where users can stretch, gesture, and move in whichever way they are most comfortable with, without impacting the device’s ability to capture and monitor their physiological signals.”
Tests on rats showed reliable signal quality despite interference on wirings – such as touching and tugging.
When stuck on human skin, BIND collected high-quality EMG (electromyography) signals that measure muscle contraction and relaxation – even underwater. It is made from thermally evaporated gold or silver nanoparticles and a soft plastic commonly used in electronics.
Professor Takao Someya, an engineer at Tokyo University who was not involved in the study, said: “This research presents a significant achievement in developing an electrical bonding technique with excellent elasticity.
“It avoids stress concentration at the interconnection between modules with different rigidity, thereby reducing noise generation.
“Acceleration of industrial application of stretchable devices is anticipated with the establishment of an industrially scalable high-throughput manufacturing method.”
BIND would give consumers a chance to choose from a range of components and replace or upgrade them when necessary – improving their sustainability.
Independent expert Prof Shlomo Magdassi, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it as “significant.”
He said: “It will enable the rapid combining of different components by simple pressing to form devices with various functionalities and complexities, accelerating the development of the field of stretchable electronics.”
An international patent has been filed. Prof Xiaodong and colleagues are now working on more efficient printing technology. It will expand choice of materials and final application – accelerating translation from the lab to the high street.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker.
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