Authors: Hirsch, Arthur; Dejace, Laurent; Michaud, Hadrien O.; Lacour, Stéphanie P.
Emerging applications of the Internet of Things in healthcare, wellness, and gaming require continuous monitoring of the body and its environment, fueling the need for wearable devices able to maintain intimate, reliable, and unobtrusive contact with the human body. This translates in the necessity to develop soft and deformable electronics that match the body’s mechanics and dynamics. In recent years, various strategies have been proposed to form stretchable circuits and more specifically elastic electrical conductors embedded in elastomeric substrate using either geometrical structuring of solid conductors or intrinsically stretchable materials. Gallium (Ga)-based liquid metals (LMs) are an emerging class of materials offering a particularly interesting set of properties for the design of intrinsically deformable conductors. They concomitantly offer the high electrical conductivity of metals with the ability of liquids to flow and reconfigure. The specific chemical and physical properties of Ga-based LMs differ fundamentally from those of solid conductors and need to be considered to successfully process and implement them into stretchable electronic devices. In this Account, we report on how the key physical and chemical properties of Ga-based LMs can be leveraged to enable repeatable manufacturing and precise patterning of stretchable LM conductors. A comprehensive understanding of the interplay between the LM, its receiving substrate chemistry and topography, and the environmental conditions is necessary to meet the reproducibility and reliability standards for large scale deployment in next-generation wearable systems. In oxidative environments, a solid oxide skin forms at the surface of the LM and provides enough stiffness to counterbalance surface tension, and prevent the LM from beading up to a spherical shape. We review techniques that advantageously harness the oxide skin to form metastable structures such as spraying, 3D printing, or channel injection. Next, we explore how controlling the environmental condition prevents the formation or removes the oxide skin, thereby allowing for selective wetting of Ga lyophilic surfaces. Representative examples include selective plating and physical vapor deposition. The wettability of LMs can be further tuned by engineering the surface chemistry and topology of the receiving substrate to form superlyophobic or superlyophilic surfaces. In particular, our group developed Ga-superlyophilic substrates by engineering the surface of silicone rubber with microstructures and a gold coating layer. Thermal evaporation of Ga on such engineered substrates allows for the formation of smooth LM films with micrometric thickness control and design freedom. The versatility of the available deposition techniques facilitates the implementation of LM conductors in a wide variety of wearable devices. We review various epidermal electronic systems using LM conductors as interconnects to carry power and information, transducers and sensors, antennas, and complex hybrid (soft-rigid) electronic circuits. In addition, we highlight the limitations and challenges inherent to the use of Ga LM conductors that include electromigration, corrosion, solidification, and biocompatibility.