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NC State News

Dr. Michael Dickey

Close-up of Michael Dickey's liquid gallium, used to create an antenna in a flexible piece of plastic.

Antennas aren’t just for listening to the radio anymore. They’re used in everything from cell phones to GPS devices. Research from NC State is revolutionizing the field of antenna design – creating shape-shifting antennas that open the door to a host of new uses in fields ranging from public safety to military deployment.

Modern antennas are made from copper or other metals, but there are limitations to how far they can be bent – and how often – before they break completely. NC State scientists have created antennas using an alloy that “can be bent, stretched, cut and twisted – and will return to its original shape,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and the lead investigator of the research.

The researchers make the new antennas by injecting an alloy made up of the metals gallium and indium, which remains in liquid form at room temperature, into very small channels the width of a human hair. Once the alloy has filled the channel, the surface of the alloy oxidizes, creating a “skin” that holds the alloy in place while allowing it to retain its liquid properties.

The innovation opens the door to a host of new applications. For example, an antenna in a flexible silicone shell could be used to monitor civil construction, such as bridges. As the bridge expands and contracts, it would stretch the antenna – changing the frequency of the antenna, and providing civil engineers information wirelessly about the condition of the bridge.

Flexibility and durability are also ideal characteristics for military equipment, since the antenna could be folded or rolled up into a small package for deployment and then unfolded again without any impact on its function.

Working with Dr. Orlin Velev and other researchers, Dickey has also developed a soft memory storage device capable of working in wet environments.

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