Stretchy circuit

Scientists have developed a new form of stretchable silicon integrated circuit that can wrap around complex shapes.

Scientists have developed a new form of stretchable silicon integrated circuit that can wrap around complex shapes such as spheres, body parts and aircraft wings, and can operate during stretching, compressing, folding and other types of extreme mechanical deformations, without a reduction in electrical performance.

‘The notion that silicon cannot be used in such applications because it is intrinsically brittle and rigid has been tossed out the window,’ said John Rogers, a Founder Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois.

‘Through carefully optimised mechanical layouts and structural configurations, we can use silicon in integrated circuits that are fully foldable and stretchable,’ he added.

To create their fully stretchable integrated circuits, Rogers and collaborators at Northwestern University and the Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore begin by applying a sacrificial layer of polymer to a rigid carrier substrate. On top of the sacrificial layer they deposit a very thin plastic coating, which will support the integrated circuit.

The circuit components are then crafted using conventional techniques for planar device fabrication, along with printing methods for integrating aligned arrays of nanoribbons of single-crystal silicon as the semiconductor. The combined thickness of the circuit elements and the plastic coating is about 50 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Next, the sacrificial polymer layer is washed away, and the plastic coating and integrated circuit are bonded to a piece of prestrained silicone rubber. Lastly, the strain is relieved, and as the rubber springs back to its initial shape, it applies compressive stresses to the circuit sheet. Those stresses spontaneously lead to a complex pattern of buckling, to create a geometry that then allows the circuit to be folded, or stretched, in different directions to conform to a variety of complex shapes or to accommodate mechanical deformations during use.

Mechanically stretchable, ‘wavy’ silicon integrated circuit on a rubber substrate

The researchers constructed integrated circuits consisting of transistors, oscillators, logic gates and amplifiers. The circuits exhibited extreme levels of bendability and stretchability, with electronic properties comparable to those of similar circuits built on conventional silicon wafers.