New bendable electronic devices could become more common in the future. (Credit: John Rogers, University of Illinois, courtesy of the National Science Foundation)

Electronic components that can be elongated or twisted — known as “stretchable” electronics — could soon be used to power medical devices and other products. And a 3D printing-like approach to manufacturing may help make stretchable electronics more prevalent, say researchers.

A type of conductor that can be built on or set into the surface of an elastomer could one day replace the rigid, brittle circuit boards that powers many of today’s electronic devices. They could be used, for example, as wearable sensors that adhere to the skin to monitor heart rate or brain activity.

One challenge facing this class of stretchable electronics involves “overcoming mismatches” between the flexible elastomer base and more brittle electronic conductors. Additive manufacturing may help resolve this issue. The researchers are testing an approach called “direct aerosol printing,” which involves spraying a conductive material and integrating with a stretchable substrate to develop sensors that can be placed on skin. Other challenges include the development of stretchable batteries that can store energy and the need to ensure that stretchable electronics and the malleable surfaces they’re built upon perform and age well together.