Future mobile devices may be able to reconfigure themselves to meet new demands, according to researchers that have developed a nanomaterial that can “steer” electrical currents. The discovery could lead to the development of smartphones and devices that can reconfigure their internal ‘wiring’ and evolve into an entirely different and new device, to reflect the changing needs of consumers.
With smartphones getting smaller and smaller, the materials from which the circuits are constructed begin to lose their properties and are more likely to be controlled by quantum mechanical phenomena, according to the research team from Northwestern University in Michigan. As devices reach this physical barrier, scientists have begun building circuits in three dimensions, by stacking components on top of one another. This technique was pioneered by Intel earlier this year.
However, the team said that it has taken a fundamentally different approach be making reconfigurable electronic materials that can rearrange themselves to meet different computational needs at different times.
The team is aiming to create a single device able to reconfigure itself into a resistor, a rectifier, a diode and a transistor based on signals from a computer. The multi-dimensional circuitry could be reconfigured into new electronic circuits using a varied input sequence of electrical pulses, the team said.
“Our new steering technology allows use to direct current flow through a piece of continuous material,” said Professor Bartosz Grzybowski, who led the research. “Like redirecting a river, streams of electrons can be steered in multiple directions through a block of the material; even multiple streams flowing in opposing directions at the same time.”
The team’s nanomaterial combines different aspects of silicon- and polymer-based electronics to create a new classification of electronic materials: nanoparticle-based electronics.
“Besides acting as three-dimensional bridges between existing technologies, the reversible nature of this new material could allow a computer to redirect and adapt its own circuitry to what is required at a specific moment in time,” said David Walker, an author of the study and a graduate student in Prof Grzybowski’s research group.
The hybrid material is composed of electrically conductive particles, each five nanometers in width, coated with a special positively charged chemical. The particles are surrounded by a sea of negatively charged atoms that balance out the positive charges fixed on the particles. By applying an electrical charge across the material, the small negative atoms can be moved and reconfigured, but the relatively larger positive particles are not able to move.
By moving this sea of negative atoms around the material, regions of low and high conductance can be modulated; the result is the creation of a directed path that allows electrons to flow through the material. Old paths can be erased and new paths created by pushing and pulling the sea of negative atoms. More complex electrical components, such as diodes and transistors, can be made when multiple types of nanoparticles are used.