Sci-Fi In Real Life: Self-Healing Technology

By Josh Tyler | Updated

You’ve seen it in everything from Star Trek to the Terminator. A robot or a device is broken and then, thanks to some sci-fi imagination, manages to fix itself. Robotic limbs are reconstructed, connections reformed. You just can’t keep a good piece of sci-fi technology down. Now that sci-fi fiction is a reality.

Engineers at the University of Illinois have developed what they’re calling a “self-healing” system which allows broken or cracked circuits to fix themselves. Chemistry professor John Moore explains, “Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself.”

Here’s how it works…

The Illinois team previously developed a system for self-healing polymer materials and decided to adapt their technique for conductive systems. They dispersed tiny microcapsules, as small as 10 microns in diameter, on top of a gold line functioning as a circuit. As a crack propagates, the microcapsules break open and release the liquid metal contained inside. The liquid metal fills in the gap in the circuit, restoring electrical flow.

A failure interrupts current for mere microseconds as the 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. 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.

This is amazing news for science, but probably not such good news for the Consumer Electronics industry where their entire business model is built around the idea that you’ll have to replace your Blu-ray player every 4 or 5 years. Applying this technology to the appliances in your house could mean lowering the frequency of replacement or repair since, should anything go wrong, your television would simply fix itself.

Perhaps more importantly this invention could allow electronics manufacturers to push the envelope further, since as technology becomes more complex it also causes bigger issues with reliability. But self-healing electronics fix themselves almost instantly, making reliability less of a concern for companies working on developing the next generation of electronic driven technology… or for anyone looking to build their own indestructible, killer root.