Inkjet-printing brings flexibility to soft robots and wearable electronics

Inkjet-printing technology can be used to mass-produce electronic circuits made of liquid-metal alloys for soft robots and flexible electronics.

Elastic technologies could enable a new class of pliable robots and stretchable clothing that people might wear for therapeutic purposes or to interact with computers. However, new manufacturing techniques must be developed before soft machines become commercially feasible, said Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

“We want to create stretchable electronics that might be compatible with soft machines, such as robots that need to squeeze through small spaces, or wearable technologies that aren’t restrictive of motion,” she said in a statement. “Conductors made from liquid metal can stretch and deform without breaking.”

A new potential manufacturing approach focuses on harnessing inkjet printing to create devices made of liquid alloys.

“This process now allows us to print flexible and stretchable conductors onto anything, including elastic materials and fabrics,” Kramer said.

Printable ink is made by dispersing the liquid metal in a non-metallic solvent using ultrasound, which breaks up the bulk liquid metal into nanoparticles. This nanoparticle-filled ink is compatible with inkjet printing.

“Liquid metal in its native form is not inkjet-able,” Kramer said. “So what we do is create liquid metal nanoparticles that are small enough to pass through an inkjet nozzle. Sonicating liquid metal in a carrier solvent, such as ethanol, creates the nanoparticles and disperses them in the solvent. Then we can print the ink onto any substrate. The ethanol evaporates away so we are just left with liquid metal nanoparticles on a surface.”

After printing, the nanoparticles must be rejoined by applying light pressure, which renders the material conductive. This step is necessary because the liquid-metal nanoparticles are initially coated with oxidised gallium, which acts as a skin that prevents electrical conductivity.

“But it’s a fragile skin, so when you apply pressure it breaks the skin and everything coalesces into one uniform film,” Kramer said. “We can do this either by stamping or by dragging something across the surface, such as the sharp edge of a silicon tip.”

The approach is said to make it possible to select which portions to activate depending on particular designs, suggesting that a blank film might be manufactured for many potential applications.

“We selectively activate what electronics we want to turn on by applying pressure to just those areas,” said Kramer.

The process could make it possible to rapidly mass-produce large quantities of the film. Future research will explore how the interaction between the ink and the surface being printed on might be conducive to the production of specific types of devices.

A research paper about the method will appear on April 18 in Advanced Materials. The paper generally introduces the method – mechanically sintered gallium-indium nanoparticles – and describes research leading up to the project. It was authored by postdoctoral researcher John William Boley, graduate student Edward L. White and Kramer.