Scientists program liquid metals, could T-1000s be next?

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Apr 17, 2018

With the recent Terminator casting news, we got to wondering when we might see some of the tech in that franchise make its way to real life. Well, prepare to be amazed, because programmable liquid metal is actually fully in the realm of IRL.

In a paper published in October of 2017, researchers from University of Sussex and Swansea University document how they figured out a way to apply electrical charges to liquid metal that forms specific shapes and letters. This could foreseeably have any number of real-world applications, including reprogrammable circuit boards, conductive ink, computer graphics, smart electronics, soft robotics, shape-changing displays, and, presumably, T-1000s.  

"In Interact Lab at University of Sussex, we have worked on various shape-changing 3D display and particularly I found liquid metal's unique morphing dynamics intriguing as it deforms in response to electric field and conducts current in a liquid state (i.e. reconfigurable circuit)," Yutaka Tokuda, one of the leading authors of that paper, explained to SYFY WIRE via email.

Check out the action below, which shows liquid metal deforming and expanding dynamically toward applied negative voltage:

According to the paper’s abstract, the team achieved the impressive display by deploying “a droplet of liquid metal (Gallium indium eutectic alloy) in a 7x7 electrode array prototype system, featuring an integrated image tracking system and a simple GUI. Exploiting the strong dependence of EGaIn's surface tension on external electric voltages, we control multiple electrodes dynamically to manipulate the liquid metal into a fine-grained desired shape. Taking advantage of the high conductivity of liquid metals, we introduce a shape changing, reconfigurable smart circuit as an example of unique applications.”

Since publishing the paper last fall, the team has made progress to improve the resolution of control points and is working on achieving more complex shape morphing animation.

"As control points increase, it is no longer tractable to maneuver the non-linear dynamics of liquid metal to create a complex shape by hand as we used to deploy GUI-based control interface," said Tokuda. "Hence, we are now shifting to deploy Artificial Intelligence system to train liquid metal to make a target shape and learn transition between different shapes."

We've seen self-propelled liquid metal before, and been awed accordingly, but the idea of programming the stuff is even more wild, right? Though T-1000s, or better yet, a friendly version of the shape shifting Terminator, may be a stretch, the future for this technology certainly looks bright.

"Liquid metal-based 3D humanoid robot (e,.g. Terminator T-1000) is still difficult at the moment since liquid metal is too heavy to stand against gravity. However, key technologies to achieve Terminator type applications are already emerging one after another across much cutting-edge liquid metal research: namely, self-healing circuit, reconfigurable circuit, liquid metal transistors, liquid metal batteries, micro-scale RF antennas," said Tokuda. "Our research is unique as we focus on metamorphosis properties of liquid metal to create smart self-transforming display or robots. To create 3D liquid metal display, it is our future vision to explore smart materials by compositing liquid metal with a more highly viscoelastic polymer or gel to grow 3D shape against gravity."

Which sounds promising indeed, but it's still nice to hear some reassurances that Robert Patrick won't be chasing us down anytime soon: "I never intend to create a Terminator-like killer machine, but it is my career ambition to create a 3D shape-transforming programmable matter, which should be a game changer of product design in robotics and electronics."

Hopefully, there’s also a congruent study researching the best way to keep Skynet from becoming self-aware at the same time. 

(via The Science Reporter)