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22 Nov 2011 | United States
On moving printed electronics from enabling technology to application
Progress at PARC
IDTechEx has already shared the sheer scope, profiles of key players, enabling devices, and commercial product possibilities presented by printed electronics. Just a couple years ago, we tracked 500 organizations (50% universities & research institutes, 50% corporations) developing printed or organic transistors, and found that the combined commercial revenue of products using these transistors was zero - in other words, the industry still needed time, money, and partnerships to scale.
PARC, a Xerox company, is an independent subsidiary (incorporated in 2002) that provides R&D services, technology, and expertise to create new business options and accelerate time to market for multiple, diverse companies. Since its inception, PARC has worked on many printed and later flexible electronics projects and has achieved many world firsts in this space.
IDTechEx recently visited PARC in California and learnt of its business model today, culture, and legacy pioneering technological change - including creating one of the first and most influential personal computer GUI interfaces (which famously inspired Steve Jobs and Apple) - among many other industry contributions.
Below, I share some updates on what IDTechEx has been observing at PARC. Taken together, these updates convey an important movement beyond the enabling materials, processes, equipment, and components.
Custom application development: Sensor tape
One of the most sophisticated printed electronics projects undertaken by PARC, with funding from DARPA, was a printed, disposable blast dosimeter.
After a certain threshold of battlefield blast exposure, damage to the brain becomes harmful, so the intention of the dosimeter is to measure cumulative trauma to the head. The goal of PARC's disposable "tape-like" blast dosimeter was to measure pressure, light, acoustics, and acceleration through multiple sensors (and integrated electronics to read out sensor signals) in different locations. The resulting individual components, ready for integration, featured more than 10,000 transistors (the majority of which is memory to retain data for over a week), and had an expected total manufacturing cost in large volumes of less than $1 per individual tape strip.
Platform manufacturing: Battery electrode breakthrough
On a platform manufacturing capability note, PARC has developed a technology it calls "co-extrusion printing"—i.e., for depositing thick films of pastes of densely inter-digitated functional materials. For batteries, these functional material pastes would be the electrode active materials. A post-deposition processing step dries and sinters the deposit into the final electrode structure. The stripes can be as narrow as several microns wide and as tall as several hundred microns.
The first application of this technique has been for silver gridlines on the surface of solar cells. Compared to screen-printed gridlines, the narrower and taller front gridlines created by the technique cover less solar cell surface area, resulting in increased absolute cell efficiency. A production prototype machine is under test at a PARC client site, with an additional gain of approximately 0.5% absolute cell efficiency and process speeds up to 200 mm/sec having been demonstrated.
While the solar cell application has a near-term sales opportunity, there is also significant commercial application of the technology to battery electrodes. The current density in an air-breathing electrode is proportional to the amount of electro-catalytic surface area that is exposed to air. The PARC technology provides a directed-assembly printing method for producing a greater proportion of this "three-phase boundary" than conventional electrode manufacturing methods—up to 10x the air-breathing surface area of conventional electrodes, potentially enabling a sustainable 20% higher energy and/or power densities. The technology is mostly agnostic to battery chemistry and can be applied to Li-ion, alkaline, and other battery types.
From building block to commercial application: Logic and memory
One of PARC's unique strengths is that it can make custom printed transistor circuits for prototyping and development purposes. PARC has collaborated with Norwegian printed memory firm ThinFilm Electronics. Last month, ThinFilm announced the first scalable printed CMOS memory module, comprising memory from ThinFilm with the driving logic from PARC, which in turn featured complementary pairs of n-type and p-type transistors. Having both printed memory and printed transistors to address the memory is a fundamental 'building block' that has applicability to, and enables, an enormous number of applications across a myriad of markets. For ThinFilm, the first commercial applications of this will be memory cards for toys and games, with a roadmap towards enabling an "Internet of Things".
Filling value chain gaps: Complete systems
Many printed electronics devices involve a system comprised of some printed electronics components and some conventional electronics. That may involve circuit design, software programming, and interfacing between the two. PARC frequently designs and builds the complete system - working with multiple players across the value chain - helping create much-needed complete working systems rather than just components.
For more information:
PARC will be exhibiting at the IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA event on Nov 30-Dec 1 in Santa Clara, CA, USA (booth # H116). See www.IDTechEx.com/peUSA for details. For more information about PARC, its client services, and other offerings, please see www.parc.com .
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