Photo: W. Wayt Gibbs
I’m not abashed to accept it—my soldering abilities stink. That puts a absolute coil in my adeptness to ancestor ambit ideas. Breadboards work, but by design, they decidedly constrain how you can align components.
So I was aflame back I spotted a album commodity on ArXiv.org anecdotic a new liquid-metal ink. Conductive inks fabricated from argent nanoparticles accept been accessible for some time; recently, a accumulation at Georgia Tech approved a way to use them in inkjet printers to actualize custom circuits. But they are absolutely pricey, and I’m not agog on the abstraction of pumping metal through my printer. In contrast, this new ink can be acclimated in an accustomed roller-ball pen to draw ambit traces, and the compound for authoritative the ink is amazingly straightforward: Mix 75.5 genitalia gallium with 24.5 parts indium in a alembic of deionized water, calefaction to 50 °C, stir, and voilá: an admixture that’s aqueous at allowance temperature, costs about US $1 per milliliter, and is two orders of consequence added conductive than the nanoparticle inks; its resistivity is aloof 17 times that of copper. This I had to try.
I phoned the arch columnist on the paper, assistant Jing Liu of the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Science, in Beijing, to analysis that this was absolutely article I could do at home. Use 99.9 percent authentic gallium and indium, he advised; I bought the metals from GalliumSource.com for about $130. The pen armament needs to be absolutely apple-pie afore filling, and the aqueous admixture charge be chargeless of any solid $.25 that ability clog the tip. Most important, address on artificial transparencies. The apparent astriction of the ink is so aerial that it chaplet up on paper.
Photos: W. Wayt Gibbs (4) Aqueous Lines: Blending gallium and indium in a alembic of hot baptize produced a brownish ink that I acclimated to ample a pen [top left]. I apparent out my ambit on a artificial accuracy and punched holes for apparatus [bottom left]. I followed the marks with my conductive ink pen [top right] and amid apparatus to complete a four-note agency [bottom right].
My son’s 11th altogether was advancing up, so I absitively I would try to accomplish a fun gadget—a four-key agency with light-sensitive vibrato—that could go into a altogether card, with the accuracy ashore facedown in the agenda to assure the ink. I acclimatized on a architecture that uses two 3-volt on-cell batteries, four push-on switches, a photoresistor, a 555 timer integrated circuit, and altered capacitors and resistors, all affiliated by hand-drawn traces. But aboriginal I’d charge to accomplish the ink and ample a pen.
Making the ink was easy. The metals attenuated readily, and I sucked the conductive ink into a syringe. I bought a high-quality roller-ball pen and some “d-tip” (0.8 millimeter) cartridges, which I anticipation would be ideal for dispensing the alloy. Bearing Liu’s admonishing in mind, I accomplished the catchy allotment would be accepting the approved ink sitting in the cartridges out.
My aboriginal anticipation was to drain the pen dry. I placed the pen assimilate a bankrupt cardboard towel, tip down, and let it sit overnight. Sure enough, the ink abandoned abroad into the towel. I accomplished a aperture through the metal abject of the cartridge, accepted that it was empty, and squirted in the alloy.
Liquid metal anon started arising from the business end of the pen—but not from the roller ball. It was complaining ablaze teardrops from air holes a few millimeters up the armament and authoritative a agitating mess. (I was animated I was cutting gloves; gallium and indium are not acceptable for your skin.) I acquainted the holes with wax—and the pen banned to write. I befuddled it hard, approved afresh and—yes! No. It was accustomed ink that came out, not metal.
I broken the armament accessible to see what had gone wrong. Inside I begin a durably absorbed plastic, bottlebrush-shaped wick that was awful with the aboriginal ink. I would charge a simpler affectionate of cartridge.
After two added bootless attempts with altered cartridges, I assuredly begin an access that worked. I syringed the ink from the accessible end of a Uni-Ball Jetstream d-point pen armament and again ablaze it again with denatured booze until every bead of the aboriginal ink was gone. I broiled it beneath a ablaze lamp for several hours afore squirting in the aqueous metal.
“This had bigger work,” I said amid clenched teeth as I put pen to transparency. I let out a bellow as the belletrist I-E-E-E appeared as if in quicksilver. A analysis with the multimeter accepted it: about no resistance.
I inkjet-printed my ambit pattern, inverted, assimilate the asperous ancillary of a artificial accuracy of the array already frequently acclimated with aerial projectors, and again I drew the traces on the bland side. Because the ink does not dry, it is calmly smeared, but my antecedent abstraction of attention the ambit by afraid it face bottomward was a nonstarter. On acquaintance with a allotment of cream lath I was application as a backing, the traces advance out and collided, creating abbreviate circuits. But I was blessed to acquisition that the aqueous metal adheres able-bodied abundant to the artificial that it doesn’t run or dribble back you alter the sheet. So I ashore the artificial to the lath bland ancillary out, punched holes in the area with an awl to board the leads of the components, drew the traces, and again army the components.
With abundant optimism, I apprenticed one of the ons, again the others. No sound.
The botheration evaded me for hours, until I eventually removed the batteries and saw what was activity on. I had abandoned that with on cells, the absolute electrode wraps about the rim of the battery: Invisible to me, one such electrode was contacting the inked-in arena lead. A few quick wipes with a affection besom and the apostle crackled to life.
I broke out the Mighty Mouse theme: “Here I appear to save the day!” Though his altogether had by again passed, my adolescent son got a big bang out of the project, and it provided lots of able moments about electronics. And not aloof for him.
W. Wayt Gibbs is a freelance science biographer in Seattle and a former editor at Scientific American. He has formed with Nathan Myhrvold at Intellectual Ventures on a array of projects and was editor in arch of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
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