As electronics get smaller, the circuits that run the world have become more fragile. Those are the circuits that control jet airplanes, nuclear power plants, and pretty much everything upon which we depend in modern life. Although redundant systems prevent catastrophe, when one circuit fails in the ubiquitous electronic devices we use, it most often means waste. In the best case, a wasted chip that needs replacing, but more often a trash can full of e-waste as the cost to find and repair the break outweighs the replacement cost.
Materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos says:
In general there’s not much avenue for manual repair. Sometimes you just can’t get to the inside. In a multilayer integrated circuit, there’s no opening it up. Normally you just replace the whole chip. It’s true for a battery too. You can’t pull a battery apart and try to find the source of the failure.
Now the golden grail of circuit boards may be the cup of the future, as a team of engineers lead by Scott White and Nancy Sottos at the University of Illinois have demonstrated a self-healing circuit.
The technology relies on a small number of microcapsules of gold which sit atop the current-carrying circuits. If a crack occurs, the microcapsules at the site of the damage break open, spilling their gold onto the circuit and restoring current to 99 percent of original conductivity in 90 percent of the samples.
The researchers next want to extend their findings into the field of batteries, surely a growing demand as we rely more on battery power in the use of renewable energy. The fact that the process works completely autonomously and immediately to heal any damage could be a boon for reliability and lifespan of electronic devices.