Programmable Liquid Matter: Researchers Find Way to Morph Liquid Metal into Physical Shapes

University of Sussex researcher Yutaka Tokuda and co-authors have applied electrical charges to manipulate liquid metal into 2D shapes such as letters and a heart. The findings, reported at the 2017 ACM International Conference on Interactive Surfaces and Spaces in Brighton, the United Kingdom, represent an ‘extremely promising’ new class of materials that can be programmed to seamlessly change shape.

Tokuda et al apply electrical charges to morph liquid metal into 2D shapes. How the electric field creates deformation: (a) a liquid metal blob far from the electrodes and in absence of field is subject to no force; (b) deformation occurs when the blob is in contact with one of the electrodes and an electric voltage is applied across it; (c) deformation in this work as a 2D process. Image credit: INTERACT Lab, University of Sussex.

Tokuda et al apply electrical charges to morph liquid metal into 2D shapes. How the electric field creates deformation: (a) a liquid metal blob far from the electrodes and in absence of field is subject to no force; (b) deformation occurs when the blob is in contact with one of the electrodes and an electric voltage is applied across it; (c) deformation in this work as a 2D process. Image credit: INTERACT Lab, University of Sussex.

“This is a new class of programmable materials in a liquid state which can dynamically transform from a simple droplet shape to many other complex geometry in a controllable manner,” Dr. Tokuda said.

While the invention might bring to mind the film Terminator 2, in which the title character morphs out of a pool of liquid metal, the creation of 3D shapes is still some way off.

More immediate applications could include reprogrammable circuit boards and conductive ink.

“While this work is in its early stages, the compelling evidence of detailed 2D control of liquid metals excites us to explore more potential applications in computer graphics, smart electronics, soft robotics and flexible displays,” Dr. Tokuda said.

The electric fields used to shape the liquid are created by a computer, meaning that the position and shape of the liquid metal can be programmed and controlled dynamically.

“Liquid metals are an extremely promising class of materials for deformable applications; their unique properties include voltage-controlled surface tension, high liquid-state conductivity and liquid-solid phase transition at room temperature,” said Professor Sriram Subramanian, head of the INTERACT Lab at the University of Sussex.

“One of the long-term visions of us and many other researchers is to change the physical shape, appearance and functionality of any object through digital control to create intelligent, dexterous and useful objects that exceed the functionality of any current display or robot.”

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Yutaka Tokuda et al. Programmable Liquid Matter: 2D Shape Deformation of Highly Conductive Liquid Metals in a Dynamic Electric Field. Proceeding of the 2017 ACM International Conference on Interactive Surfaces and Spaces, pp. 142-150; doi: 10.1145/3132272.3134132

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