Flexible Electronic Conductor

The latest in electronics comes from an unlikely source.

Smart clothing? Electronic skin? Computer screens that can bend, fold and stretch?

These are just some of the potential applications for malleable electricity conductors, a futuristic technology that University at Buffalo engineers just made a whole lot better by looking backwards: to an ancient Japanese folk art called kirigami. 

Specifically, the UB-led research team is creating tiny sheets of strong yet pliable electronic materials made of select polymers and nanowires. That could have big implications for everything from commodities to robots—even to human anatomy.

Matching the human body

“Traditional electronics, like the printed circuit boards in tablets and other electronic devices, are rigid,” says Shenqiang Ren, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “That’s not a good match for the human body, which is full of bends and curves, especially when we are moving.”

“We examined the design principles behind kirigami, which is an efficient and beautiful art form, and applied them to our work to develop a much stronger and stretchable conductor of power,” says Ren, also a member of UB’s RENEW Institute, which is dedicated to solving complex environmental problems.

The advancement has many potential applications, including electronic skin (thin electronic material that mimics human skin, often used in robotic and health applications), bendable display screens and electronic paper. But its most widespread application could be in smart clothing or e-textiles, a market that analysts say could reach $4 billion by 2024.