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Liquid Metal Makes Stretchable Circuits

The flexible circuit can be stretched to four times its original size. Continue reading →

Electronic circuits are sensitive little buggers. Bend, flex or twist them and they typically snap in half. That's because electronics are made from brittle metals.

But scientists at EPFL in Switzerland have found a way to turn liquid metal, an alloy of gold and gallium, into a flexible circuit that can be stretched to four times its original size.

10 Shapeshifting Techs: The Morph, the Merrier

The potential applications are wide-ranging and incredibly useful. Think artificial skin on a robotic limb, skin on a soft robot, and electronic clothing. Such material could also be used to provide touch feedback on soft game controllers, for example.

"We can come up with all sorts of uses, in forms that are complex, moving or that change over time," said Hadrien Michaud in a press release. Michaud is a PhD student at the Laboratory for Soft Bioelectronic Interfaces and one of the authors on the study, which appeared in this week's "Advanced Materials."

Gold Particles Stretch Out Electronics

The scientists chose gallium because it maintains good electrical properties and stays in its liquid state, even at room temperature.

Below, a video shows a couple of examples of the material's flexibility, which is on par with rubber. In lab tests, the liquid metal circuits were put through punishing tests, and held up to a million stretches without cracking.

There are a lot of ways to essentially carve out cross-sections of emerging technologies. You can look at the broad topic areas -- robotics, biotech, computing. You can sort by chronology, geography, industry or application. Or you can just take a notion -- stuff that morphs into other stuff -- and see what pops up. Here we take a look at some images of conceptual and emerging technology based around the idea of changing shape. Across a wide variety of research areas, these are systems and machines -- both very big and very small -- that explore the idea of shapeshifting technology.

Over at the conceptual design website

Tuvie

, designers are looking at far-future ideas for self-driving cars in which the vehicle interior morphs to suit passenger needs. Since there is no need for actual driving, passengers can recline with the

Honda CARpet

concept, in which the interior flows and shape itself on command.

A team of London architects is working on the

D*Dynamic

project, a "folding house" which can reconfigure itself depending on seasonal conditions. Using a systems of sensors, hydraulics and rails, the house rotates and changes shape to optimize air and light.

In 2014, NASA demonstrated its

Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge

(ACTE) project, designed to develop a wing surface that can morph during flight. You know those metal flaps on the rear edge of commercial airliner wings? The idea is to evolve the concept with super-strong but flexible materials that would allow the wing to change shape without seams or hinges.

Scientists at the University of Michigan are currently researching the idea of developing fleets of

medical micro-robots

that could morph into different shapes within the human body. The tiny networked robots would travel through the body's circulatory system and could be electronically networked to assume different shapes for certain tasks -- clearing an arterial blockage, say, or stimulating a particular muscle.

Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell University are getting even smaller with a microscopic material they compare to the Terminator T-1000. Made of synthetic DNA, the

organic hydrogel

can be formed into a solid shape, then flow like a liquid, then return to its original shape. The gel could be used to administer medicines more precisely -- delivering drugs to the site of an injury, say, and reforming to exactly fit the space inside of a wound.

Back over at Tuvie, designers looking way down the line have envisioned a new kind of touchscreen device. The conceptual

Messizon Smartphone

would use a layer of nanoparticles to physically alter the screen beneath your fingers -- popping up buttons, images, 3-D maps or even Braille instructions. The concept

Nokia Morph

phone, pictured above, proposes nanotech components that are flexible, stretchable and transparent.

Shapeshifting furniture is a concept that continues to generate interest. The

MIT Tangible Media Group

is looking at a near-term design, the TRANSFORM table, that employs 1,000 independently operating columns to change the table surface in response to human gesture. The idea is to move toward furniture that anticipates intent, and morphs accordingly.

A group of scientists in Switzerland is taking the idea of shapeshifting furniture a step further. They've developed a prototype set of small robotic modules called

roombots

that can self-assemble and morph into different shapes. The mobile robots are also designed to hook into walls, floors and existing furniture.

Then there are the really big ideas. The

GIGAbay cargo plane

is a concept design that would use advanced ceramics, fibers and carbon nanotubes to create a massive flying superstructure. The carrying capacity would be so large that, upon landing, the plane could be morphed into a mobile power station, water treatment plant or even a three-story, self-sustaining hospital.