Liquid Metal Technology Now Exists

You probably thought that those liquid metal T-1000 terminators could only get you by coming back from the future, like in the 1991 movie Terminator 2:

John Connor: So this other guy: he's a Terminator like you, right?
The Terminator: Not like me. A T-1000, advanced prototype.
John Connor: You mean more advanced than you are?
The Terminator: Yes. A mimetic poly-alloy.
John Connor: What the hell does that mean?
The Terminator: Liquid metal.

However, North Carolina State researchers have now developed a technique for controlling the surface tension of liquid metals by applying very low voltages. This new capability makes possible a whole new generation of reconfigurable electronic circuits, antennas and other technologies.

The new technique hinges on the fact that the oxide “skin” of the metal – which can be deposited or removed – acts as a surfactant, lowering the surface tension between the metal and the surrounding fluid.


(Liquid metal robots now possible?)

The researchers used a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium. In base, the bare alloy has a remarkably high surface tension of about 500 millinewtons (mN)/meter, which causes the metal to bead up into a spherical blob.

"But we discovered that applying a small, positive charge – less than 1 volt – causes an electrochemical reaction that creates an oxide layer on the surface of the metal, dramatically lowering the surface tension from 500 mN/meter to around 2 mN/meter,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper describing the work. “This change allows the liquid metal to spread out like a pancake, due to gravity.”

The researchers also showed that the change in surface tension is reversible. If researchers flip the polarity of the charge from positive to negative, the oxide is eliminated and high surface tension is restored. The surface tension can be tuned between these two extremes by varying the voltage in small steps.

“The resulting changes in surface tension are among the largest ever reported, which is remarkable considering it can be manipulated by less than one volt,” Dickey says. “We can use this technique to control the movement of liquid metals, allowing us to change the shape of antennas and complete or break circuits. It could also be used in microfluidic channels, MEMS, or photonic and optical devices. Many materials form surface oxides, so the work could extend beyond the liquid metals studied here.”

See also this earlier story on Shape-Changing Metal Antennas, as well as this article on MIT's Shape-Shifting Robot Materials.

Also, I'm sure you want to see more T-1000 Terminator moments from Terminator 2.

Via Researchers Control Surface Tension to Manipulate Liquid Metals.

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