No matter how many speculative cautionary tales science fiction produces, science keeps inching us ever closer to our inevitable doom at the hands of our eventual robot overlords. Take, for instance, James Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We all watched that and were like, whew, thank god that terrifying molten metal man doesn’t really exist. And while we’ve been able to think that for more than the last two decades, thanks to science, we’re one step closer to seeing that shape-shifting Robert Patrick that has haunted so many of our dreams become a reality.
It’s a baby step, but like I said, we’re getting closer and closer to Skynet every day. A team of researchers at North Carolina State University have taken it upon themselves to create a liquid metal alloy that can reshape itself in a way that may be unsettlingly familiar to some of us. It’s cool, and fascinating, but also won’t to anything to help alleviate your T2 induced nightmares.
Using a low-level electric charge, the team is able to take the alloy, which is composed of gallium and indium, and manipulate the surface tension. Normally this makes such substances ball up into round beads, but in this case it causes the metal to flatten out into more of a pancake style. If you reverse the charge, it returns to its spherical shape. From there it’s only a matter of time until they turn it into a dude programmed to go back in time and kill John Connor. Check it out in action for yourself in this video:
Here’s what Michael Dickey, senior author of the study and NC State associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering has to say about their project:
But we discovered that applying a small, positive charge – less than 1 volt – causes an electrochemical reaction that creates an oxide layer on the surface of the metal, dramatically lowering the surface tension from 500 mN/meter to around 2 mN/meter. This change allows the liquid metal to spread out like a pancake, due to gravity …
The resulting changes in surface tension are among the largest ever reported, which is remarkable considering it can be manipulated by less than one volt. We can use this technique to control the movement of liquid metals, allowing us to change the shape of antennas and complete or break circuits. It could also be used in microfluidic channels, MEMS, or photonic and optical devices. Many materials form surface oxides, so the work could extend beyond the liquid metals studied here.
In theory anyway, this project has nothing to do with a swarm of evil, doppelganging robots from the future designed to hunt and kill. The researchers believe it could radically change the way we make circuits, or could even be used to change the shape of your smartphone antenna to get a better signal. It should be noted that no one ever starts out wanting to doom the human race, but they do anyway. Seriously, I’m wiling to accept a dropped call, some static, or not being able to check Twitter now and again in order to preserve the future of humanity, but maybe that’s just me.