If semiconductor materials were flexible and stretchable without sacrificing electronic function, what could you do with the technology? A "solar tarp" capable of providing low-cost electricity is one exciting possibility. You could fold them up, pack them away and then stretch them back out when you need power. Rural villages, disaster-relief operations and many remote humanitarian, conservation or military operations could benefit from solar tarps.
Writing in the journal Chemistry of Materials, nanoengineering professor Darren Lipomi reports on several new discoveries he and his team have made that could lead to the kinds of "molecularly stretchable" electronics that would be required for solar tarps and a range of new self-powered wearable sensor technologies.
Flexible electronics do exist today, and they are enabling a new generation of wearable sensors and other mobile electronic devices. There is, however, a big difference between "flexible" and "stretchable" electronics. Flexible electronics are akin to wrapping a basketball with a sheet of paper that would wrinkle. Stretchable electronics, which Lipomi is pursuing, are closer to the idea of wrapping that same ball with a thin sheet of surface-conforming rubber.
Lipomi's team, for example, recently discovered that polymers with strings of seven carbon atoms attached produce the balance of stretchability and functionality that would be needed for electronics and medical devices that are flexible, stretchable, collapsible and fracture proof.