Nanowire electronics recently developed by researchers at Stanford can bend to accommodate almost any shape and can be used on virtually any material. The electronics can attach to a surface and be released from it repeatedly without any damage. The researchers tested the nanowire electronics on a variety of materials including paper, textiles, plastics, glass, aluminum foil, and latex gloves. Potential applications of the circuitry include ultrasensitive biosensors that can be attached to organs like the heart and brain, flexible computer displays, and wearable electronics.
When developing the electronics, the researchers used a polymer layer 15 times thinner than plastic wrap to insulate and support the electronics mechanically. The polymer’s high level of flexibility enables it to conform to the shape of any object, explains Xiaolin Zheng, an engineering professor at Stanford who oversaw the research.
From the press release:
[What] really makes the devices so flexible, what allows the devices to bend with the flexible substrate, is the short length of the nanowires used to fabricate the circuitry.
“The length of these nanowires is only a couple thousandths of a millimeter long,” Zheng said. “Compared to the curvature of the objects we’re attaching them to, that is really short, so there is very little strain on the nanowires.”
The devices can also easily be applied to a surface, removed and applied again to another surface, repeatedly, without degrading the circuitry.
Some of the major applications of the process that Zheng foresees will be in the area of biological research. Nanowire devices could be attached directly to heart or brain tissues to measure the electrical signals from those tissues.
“Researchers could measure heart arrhythmias or how a neuron fires,” she said. “Those signals are electrical, but to measure them you need a very conformable, very thin coating that allows the signals to propagate across the substrate.”
The transfer process could also be used in developing high-efficiency flexible solar cells and would likely have uses in robotics, as well.
“The possibilities are really unlimited,” Zheng said.