As I’ve often said, wearable devices have to “disappear” into the background of our lives. This means that you should have to strap on a wrist band or remember to carry something in your pocket or purse. One possible solution is the creation of “smart” garments that carry the sensors and other intelligent components so we don’t have to think about them. One major problem is that we are very hard on clothing, even when we’re being careful. Between normal activities and typical wash and dry processes, clothing has to be durable. And most electronic devices are far from durable. Moisture, metal fatigue, and other stresses can quickly render them useless.

At the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, researchers have come up with a magnetic ink that can heal itself when broken. The conductive material contains microparticles that are aligned using a magnetic field. This causes them to be attracted to each other, so if the circuit is broken, the two sides will automatically reconnect themselves. Initial experiments have shown that the material can “heal” in spite of a 3 mm gap in as little as 0.05 seconds.

This performance is in stark contrast to other “self-healing” conductive materials that require some external trigger such as heat or a catalyst to start the healing process. Such materials can take minutes or even days to repair damage. By mixing carbon with the magnetic particles, the UCSD scientists improved the ink’s ability to conduct electricity. The result is an inexpensive and flexible material suitable for circuits on smart garments and other applications. By mixing other materials with the magnetic particles, the same approach could be used for other applications that call for a flexible and rugged material that can heal itself.