Electrically conductive gel holds promise for next gen medical sensors
Researchers at Stanford University in the US have engineered an electrically conductive gel that is quick and easy to make, can be patterned onto surfaces with an inkjet printer and demonstrates 'unprecedented' electrical performance.
The novel material, created by chemical engineering Associate Professor Zhenan Bao and materials science and engineering Associate Professor Yi Cui, has been described as a kind of conducting hydrogel – a jelly that feels and behaves like biological tissues, but conducts electricity like a metal or semiconductor.
The researchers believe this combination of characteristics holds enormous promise for biological sensors and futuristic energy storage devices. Bao and Cui made the gel by binding long chains of the organic compound aniline together with phytic acid, found naturally in plant tissues. The acid is able to grab up to six polymer chains at once, making for an extensively cross-linked network.
"There are already commercially available conducting polymers," said Bao, "but they all form a uniform film without any nanostructures."
In contrast, Bao says the new gel's cross-linking makes for a complex, sponge-like structure. The hydrogel is marked with innumerable tiny pores that expand the gel's surface area, increasing the amount of charge it can hold, its ability to sense chemicals, and the rapidity of its electrical response.
Nonetheless, the gel can be easily manipulated. Because the material doesn't solidify until the last step of its synthesis, it can be printed or sprayed as a liquid and turned into a gel after it's already in place – meaning that manufacturers should be able to construct intricately patterned electrodes at low cost.
"You can't print jelly," said Cui. "But with this technique, we can print it and make it jelly later."
The material's unusual structure also gives the gel what Cui referred to as 'remarkable electronic properties'. While most hydrogels are tied together by a large number of insulating molecules, reducing the material's overall ability to pass electrical current, phytic acid is a 'small-molecule dopant' – meaning that when it links polymer chains, it also lends them charge. This effect makes the hydrogel highly conductive.
"The gel's conductance is among the best you can get through this kind of process," said Cui. "Its capacity to hold charge is very high, and its response to applied charge is unusually fast."
The researchers envision the material being used in everything from medical probes and laboratory biological sensors to biofuel cells and high energy density capacitors. "And all it's made of are commercially available ingredients thrown into a water solution," Bao concluded.
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