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Inventors

Tom Deason

35 Innovators Under 35

Inventors

They’re building the technologies of the future, from stretchy electronics to new ways to test cancer drugs.

Sheng Xu, 34

University of California, San Diego

Making off-the-shelf electronics stretchable.

Stretchy electronics that can conform to the body no longer have to compromise between electrical and mechanical performance, thanks to some smart engineering by Sheng Xu.

Marrying rigid electronic components with elastic materials is tricky. The mismatch in their mechanical properties generates huge strains, causing them to separate when deformed. That’s why most previous research in flexible electronics focused on building new components that are soft and flexible. But Xu didn’t see the sense in discarding decades of progress in the electronics industry. “Why not use something that already matured decades ago?” he says. His strategy made it possible to integrate off-the-shelf components into elastic materials to create highly stretchable electronics as capable as their rigid counterparts.

Xu opted to bond only tiny sections of the components to the elastic material and then support them in a fluid-filled capsule. These are joined together with wires configured into long wavy lines that unravel in an ordered way when stretched. He’s used the approach to build a lithium-ion battery that stretches by up to 300 percent and a hospital-quality health monitor that conforms to the body as it moves. The latter has been developed into a wearable physiological sensor called BioStamp by a startup called MC10.

—Edd Gent