Cellphones that Repair Themselves? Scientists Create ‘Self-Healing’ Circuits

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Mike Blake / Reuters

Cellphone, heal thyself — if you’re sick of having to work your way through a series of broken electronic devices, dulled (or dead) batteries and an endless thread of replacement cellphones, help may be at hand thanks to scientists at the University of Illinois, who are hard at work creating “self-healing electronic circuits.”

The research team has developed a system of capsules inserted along the circuit, each one filled with liquid metal that — when the circuit is broken — are released to restore connectivity and complete the circuit again. It simplifies the system, explains U of I chemistry professor, Jeffrey Moore: “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.”

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The implications of a self-repairing circuit could be huge, says material science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos, who led the U of I team alongside Moore: “In general there’s not much avenue for manual repair [in electronic devices with broken circuits]. 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.”

In tests, the new system can repair circuits in a fraction of a second, with the majority returning to 99% capacity. The system is autonomous, meaning that it can be used to repair circuits even when mechanics don’t know where the broken circuit actually is, or are unable to get to it easily.

The next step for the research team is further testing to refine the system, but it’s possible that this new invention could lead to a massive reduction in the amount of electronic waste generated as a result of electronic faults. All we need now? For someone to design devices that never go out of style, so we never need a new cellphone again.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.