In the lab of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Professor John Rogers, electronics fall apart or, more accurately, dissolve in water. Transient electronics, as they’re called, are designed to be temporary. They have the potential to be implanted in the body, monitor vital signs or fight infection, and slowly dissolve into harmless components. If scaled up to manufacturing levels, these devices have the potential to revolutionize electronics. And his group has been working hard by publishing a lot of papers on the subject.
So I was surprised when I saw a recent report by the Rogers group in Nature Communications on a wholly different class of electronics. (Though maybe I shouldn’t be surprised since Rogers got his Ph.D. under none other than George Whitesides who may be the most diverse chemist of today.) In this new report, he’s using fractal patterns to integrate metal wires into a stretchable substrate. At first I thought, “How the hell is he going to make an infinite recursion wire.” Then I found out that space-filling curves are fractals (thanks Wikipedia). You can think of the patterns like a winning game of Snake, lines packed as close as possible without overlapping. An excited group of mathematicians figured out mathematical functions for different varieties of packing and left us with the below patterns. (Traditionally, the mathematical functions have hard edges, but Rogers has replaced the edges with arcs to improve the mechanics—hard turns create stress points which break easily.)
So wires of different patterns are embedded in a polymer substrate. So what? Well, it turns out interesting mechanical properties arise with the different patterns. These things can stretch. The “stretchability” is well above the 20% necessary to mimic skin. So that’s what they did. Using the Peano layout, they spelled out the word ILLINOIS and mounted it on someone’s actual skin. Then, using a “skin-replica” they took optical and scanning electron microscopy images to prove that the wires conform to the valleys and hills of normal human skin.
“Amazing,” I thought. Wearable electronics may soon be reality. And if this was my work, I would probably stop there, too excited not to publish. But it’s not and a good thing, too. They went on to make actual functioning devices able to heat, sense temperature, and take electrocardiograms (ECGs). They made tiny heart monitors.
And not only that. The devices are compatible with MRIs. Because there are no closed loops in these devices, there aren’t any circulating magnetic currents that may cause signal loss. They’re completely invisible in an MRI scan.
It’s not often that math-inspired work crops up in chemistry (for a hard science, chemists are surprisingly squeamish about math), but when it does it’s always beautiful. It seems that John Rogers has made it his personal mission to advance us to the next level of technology… and into the twenty-fourth and a half century!