NTU scientists develop ‘Lego-like’ universal connector

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An international team led by researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a universal connector to assemble stretchable devices simply and quickly, in a ‘Lego-like’ manner.

Stretchable devices including soft robots and wearable healthcare devices are assembled using several different modules with different material characteristics - some soft, some rigid, and some encapsulated. However, the commercial pastes (glue), currently used to connect the modules often either fail to transmit mechanical and electrical signals reliably when deformed or break easily.

In order to ensure a reliably functioning device, module connectors (interfaces) need to be custom-built with enough strength to perform their intended tasks.  

Making easily assembled stretchable devices without compromising their strength and reliability under stress has been a long-standing challenge limiting their development however the NTU-led team, in response, have developed the BIND interface (biphasic, nano-dispersed interface) which makes assembly of stretchable devices simple while offering excellent mechanical and electrical performance.

Much like building structures with Lego blocks, these high-performing stretchable devices can be assembled by simply pressing together any module bearing the BIND interface.

This is a far more convenient way to connect electronic modules and according to the team could form the basis of assembling future stretchable devices, in which producers ‘plug-and-play’ the components according to their designs. 

Chen Xiaodong, President’s Chair Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at NTU Singapore and Scientific Director, Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, said, “Our breakthrough innovation makes it very easy to form and use a stretchable device since it works like a ‘universal connector’. Any electronic module bearing the BIND interface can be connected simply by pressing them together for less than 10 seconds. Moreover, we do away with the cumbersome process of building customised interfaces for specific systems, which we believe will help accelerate the development of stretchable devices.”

In experiments, modules joined by the interface showed impressive levels of performance. When subjected to stretching tests, modules were able to withstand stretching of up to seven times their original length before breaking. Moreover, the electrical transmission of modules remained robust up to 2.8 times its original length when stretched.

The BIND interface was also evaluated for its interfacial toughness using a standard Peel Adhesion Test, in which the adhesive strength between two modules is tested by pulling it apart at a constant speed at 180°. For encapsulation modules, researchers found the innovation to be 60 times tougher than conventional connectors.

Commenting Dr Jiang Ying, Research Fellow at the NTU School of Materials Science & Engineering, said, “These impressive results prove that our interface can be used to build highly functional and reliable wearable devices or soft robots. For example, it can be used in high-quality wearable fitness trackers where users can stretch, gesture, and move in whichever way they are most comfortable with, without impacting the device’s ability to capture and monitor their physiological signals.”

To develop the BIND interface, researchers thermally evaporated metal (gold or silver) nanoparticles to form a robust interpenetrating nanostructure inside a soft thermoplastic commonly used in stretchable electronics (styrene-ethylene-butylene-styrene). The resulting nanostructure provides both continuous mechanical and electrical pathways, allowing modules with BIND connections to remain robust even when deformed.

Commenting as an independent expert, Professor Shlomo Magdassi from the Institute of Chemistry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem said, “This new universal and simple plug-and-play approach developed by Prof Chen Xiaodong and his team is significant because it will enable the rapid combining of different components by simple pressing to form devices with various functionalities and complexities, accelerating the development of the field of stretchable electronics.”

An international patent has been filed for the innovation. For their next steps, the research team is developing a more efficient printing technology to expand the material choice and final application of this innovation, to accelerate its translation from the lab to the design and manufacturing of products. 

The international research team also includes contributors from Stanford University, Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and National University of Singapore.