When one circuit within an integrated chip cracks or fails, the whole chip – or even the whole device – is a loss. University of Illinois engineers have now developed a self-healing system that restores electrical conductivity to a cracked circuit in less time than it takes to blink.
“Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself,” said chemistry professor Jeffrey Moore.
As electronic devices are evolving to perform more sophisticated tasks, manufacturers are packing as much density onto a chip as possible. However, such density compounds reliability problems, such as failure stemming from fluctuating temperature cycles as the device operates or fatigue. A failure at any point in the circuit can shut down the whole device.
“In general there’s not much avenue for manual repair,” said engineering professor Nancy Sottos. “Sometimes you just can’t get to the inside. In a multilayer integrated circuit, there’s no opening it up. Normally you just replace the whole chip. It’s true for a battery too. You can’t pull a battery apart and try to find the source of the failure.”
The team previously developed a system for self-healing polymer materials and adapted their technique for conductive systems. They dispersed tiny microcapsules, as small as 10 microns in diameter, on top of a gold line functioning as a circuit. As a crack propagates, the microcapsules break open and release the liquid metal contained inside. The liquid metal fills in the gap in the circuit, restoring electrical flow.
A failure interrupts current for mere microseconds as the liquid metal immediately fills the crack. The researchers demonstrated that 90 percent of their samples healed to 99 percent of original conductivity, even with a small amount of microcapsules.
The self-healing system also has the advantages of being localized and autonomous. Only the microcapsules that a crack intercepts are opened, so repair only takes place at the point of damage. Furthermore, it requires no human intervention or diagnostics, a boon for applications where accessing a break for repair is impossible, such as a battery, or finding the source of a failure is difficult, such as an air- or spacecraft.