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Posted on March 20, 2017

Graphene for Printed and Flexible Electronics

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IDTechEx has invited a series of industrial players and leaders active in graphene commercialization to contribute their opinions about the state of the technology and markets. As part of article series, we will today hear from Group NanoXplore Inc who write about the progress of graphene in printed and flexible electronics. To contact GroupNanoXplore Inc directly please contact the author Mr Paul Higgins (COO) on higgins@nanoxplore.ca.
 
To learn more about the graphene markets please refer to our report on Graphene, 2D Materials, and Carbon Nanotubes 2016-2026: Markets, Technologies, and Opportunities External Link. You can also meet with many industry leaders at our business-focused event Graphene & 2D Materials Europe 2017 External Link taking place on May 10th and 11th in Berlin, Germany.

 
Almost since its initial synthesis, people have suggested graphene applications in the related fields of printed and flexible electronics. The dream has been highly functional, mechanically flexible devices fabricated by large area and high speed printing processes, and applied to a wide array of substrates with a broad range of form factors (conformal, curved, light weight). All of this would enable novel devices with better durability, high-levels of functional integration and produced using mass production processes with high yields and low costs.
 
However, the dream - at least the graphene-enabled part of it - has been very slow to arrive. This despite some early graphene ink products and recurring reports of graphene based touch screens for telephone and tablet displays. Developers have faced many difficulties in translating graphene properties into real-life applications; these well-known issues are related to past obstacles in large-scale production of high quality graphene and the challenges integrating graphene into existing industrial processes and commercially viable products. However, I believe that a major source of the disappointing results to date has been the focus on replacing existing technologies by graphene, rather than on developing innovative new solutions based upon the unique properties of graphene itself.
 
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A case in point is graphene ink. Functional inks are an existing multi-billion-dollar market. Existing inks are a mature technology and formulated from metals, metal oxides, semiconductors and carbon materials. Graphene inks are neither as highly conductive as the metal-based inks nor as inexpensive as inks formulated from other carbon materials. Graphene inks may offer a strong value proposition in specific application niches, but they struggle to displace existing products more broadly.
 
The story is similar for attempts to replace ITO with graphene transparent electrodes. A lot of good work has gone into developing techniques to produce highly conductive and optically transparent graphene films, but existing ITO technologies have continued to improve and new technologies, such as copper mesh, also offer highly competitive solutions. Although graphene can provide value for specific niches, it does not have a broad competitive advantage in this space.
 
There are however, potential printed and flexible electronic applications that build upon the unique properties of graphene. Graphene added to polymer films can create flexible materials with an array of desirable functional properties. Plastic layers and devices can be created with simultaneously high electromagnetic shielding, high oxygen barrier and strong anti-abrasion properties, for example. Thin layers of novel graphene-enhanced polymers can provide enhanced thermal and electrical conductivity, or perhaps just one or the other depending on the fabrication process. Innovative techniques can provide gradients or patterning of electrical conductivity in graphene polymer nanocomposites. All of these examples would be based upon polymer composites, offering mechanical flexibility and the possibility of high volume, low cost fabrication processes.
 
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Only by embracing the unique properties of graphene will we discover its killer app for printed and flexible electronics. To fulfill graphene's potential, what is needed is a leap of innovation rather than incrementalism.
 
Learn more at the next leading event on the topic: Printed Electronics USA 2017 External Link on 15 - 16 Nov 2017 in Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, USA hosted by IDTechEx.