A team of University of Illinois engineers has developed a self-healing system that restores electrical conductivity to a cracked circuit in less time than it takes to blink. Led by aerospace engineering professor Scott White and materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos, the researchers published their results in the journal Advanced Materials.
In the system a liquid metal contained in microcapsules, released by the damage, fills in the gap in the circuit, restoring electrical flow.
"What's really cool about this paper is it's the first example of taking the microcapsule-based healing approach and applying it to a new function," White said. "Everything prior to this has been on structural repair. This is on conductivity restoration. It shows the concept translates to other things as well."
A failure interrupts current for mere microseconds as liquid metal immediately fills the crack. The researchers demonstrated that 90 percent of their samples healed to 99 percent of original conductivity, even with a small amount of microcapsules.
Process for autonomous, localized conductor self-healing
The self-healing system also has the advantages of being localized and autonomous. Only the microcapsules that a crack intercepts are opened, so repair only takes place at the point of damage. Furthermore, it requires no human intervention or diagnostics, a boon for applications where accessing a break for repair is impossible, such as a battery, or finding the source of a failure is difficult, such as an air- or spacecraft.
"In an aircraft, especially a defense-based aircraft, there are miles and miles of conductive wire," Sottos said. "You don't often know where the break occurs. The autonomous part is nice – it knows where it broke, even if we don't."
Next, the researchers plan to further refine their system and explore other possibilities for using microcapsules to control conductivity. They are particularly interested in applying the microcapsule-based self-healing system to batteries, improving their safety and longevity.
This research was supported as part of the Center for Electrical Energy Storage, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science.
This article was first posted in our sister publication EE Times Europe.