The last things most people want to do with a digital memory device are to drop it on a hard surface, bend it or put it under water. But a new prototype developed by North Carolina State University researchers is made to stand up to all of the above and more.
Rather than the brittle, unyielding materials at the heart of most electronics, the NCSU rare earth element (REE)-laden memory device is soft and squishy and is not affected by wet environments. . ."similar to the human brain," according to one of its designers.
The Jell-O-like device is composed of four crossed metal strips, made from a liquid alloy of gallium and indium, set on either side of slabs of water-based gel. The biocompatibility of the gel means it likely would be ideal for implantation, where it could allow electronics to interface with biological systems. Each component of the device is capable of existing in an electrically conductive or resistive state. These two states represent the 1s and 0s of the binary language and are switched between via manipulating ions. In conventional electronics, electrons are used to achieve the same ends.
Within each circuit of the device, the alloy strips act as the electrode, located on either side of the conductive gel. When exposed to a positive charge, the alloy creates an oxidized skin that makes it resistive to electricity. When exposed to a negative charge, that skin vanishes and it becomes conductive.
Currently, the NCSU device has little in the way of memory. In a higher-capacity form, however, it could conceivably be used not only in implants, but also in soft-bodied robots or applications that are too rough for conventional electronics.