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CMU Researchers Develop New Self-Healing Electrical Circuit

Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Embedded in a rubber membrane, the new circuit is both stretchy and flexible.

In the movie The Martian, actor Matt Damon's character is stranded on Mars. He’s been left for dead during an evacuation from a dust storm. Unable to communicate with his crewmates, Damon's character is forced to survive alone on the planet for more than a year before he's rescued.

Damon's predicament could have been solved much sooner, however, with help from a new self-healing electrical circut developed at Carnegie Mellon University's Integrated Soft Machines Lab.

“If Matt Damon was wired up with our self-healing circuitry, they might be able to relay data and see that Matt Damon was still alive,” researcher Eric Markvicka said. “And they wouldn’t have left Mars.”

The new circuit is made of liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible and stretchy rubber membrane. When damaged, the surrounding droplets rupture and form new electrical pathways. The process is similar to how our brains maintain functionality by rerouting neurons around damaged or destroyed tissue.

CMU mechanical engineering professor Carmel Majidi runs the soft machines lab. He said the material is perfect for use in wearable computing, or advanced devices that can be worn like clothing.

“We’ve been very interested in taking electronics out of their hard case and incorporating them into clothing, into machines and robotics that interface with the human body,” Majidi said. “This is one way of engineering circuitry that are soft and stretchable.”

Credit Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Majidi says the technology is ready to be used in the real world, and the lab is currently exploring commercialization.

Markvicka said the durable circuits are also a good fit for electronics that are hard to access and repair, such as medical implants like pacemakers. They're also useful for remote robots, liek those working in space or deep under the ocean.

“You’re not necessarily going to be with this robot, but if it encounters damage, you want it to be able to self-heal and not end the mission,” Markvicka said.

Markvicka built the rubbery circuits using a Cricut – a consumer-grade, desktop cutting plotter that’s typically used for arts-and-crafts and scrapbooking. Due to the ease of production and common materials, Majidi said the new technology is ready to be deployed into the real world.

Jakob Lazzaro is a digital producer at WESA. He comes to Pittsburgh from South Bend, Ind., where he worked as the senior reporter and assignment editor at WVPE and had fun on-air hosting local All Things Considered two days a week, but he first got to know this area in 2018 as an intern at WESA (and is excited to be back). He graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 and has also previously reported for CalMatters and written NPR's Source of the Week email newsletter.