Printed electronics is now seeing a surge in transactions in the form of orders, government and industry-funded development programs, acquisitions and company fund raising. Printed electronics is now an everyday phrase encompassing printed and potentially printed electronics and electrics. Some of it goes back a long way but it is now at a tipping point because of a sharp improvement in performance, price and repertoire. For example, printed, light emitting, flexible posters and billboards based on zinc sulphide inks have transmogrified into washable light emitting t-shirts, smart packaging, embedded displays in buildings, cars and more.
Orders flood in
The potential market for solar cells - photovoltaics - always was for flexible versions and now many affordable flexible versions are being commercialised, with printing technology used sooner rather than later in order to save material and deposition cost and sometimes improve performance in various respects, including tolerance of light at narrow angles and damage.
Now we can laminate solar power onto a large dirigible, for example, where Northrop Grumman in the USA has just landed an order for $517 million to make one for surveillance from the upper atmosphere that is based on flexible photovoltaics. Delivery will be in 2012.
Boeing in the USA has won $89 million in funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA for the second phase of the Vulture long-endurance unmanned aerial system UAS program based on flexible photovoltaics. Boeing's Solar Eagle was selected over the Odysseus, a rival proposal submitted by Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences.
DARPA awarded Boeing the contract for the development and flight demonstration of the Vulture air vehicle, a 400 ft. (122 meter) wing span, quad-tail flying wing, designed for operation at very high-altitude of 90,000 - 60,000 ft, and which can operate continuously for a period of five years. The Vulture will be able to carry a payload of 1,000 lb (450 kg) operated with 5kW of power. Vulture type platforms have potential in numerous roles: operation as a single platform, as a formation of multiple aircraft or as a constellation providing infrastructure augmentation or recovery.
Flight testing is expected in 2014, which will demonstrate continuous flying for over 32 days. In addition, the agency will continue the definition of an objective system design and military utility in a range of applications. DARPA's Vulture program is supported by a government team including the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Boeing is leading the program, teamed with Qinetiq that developed the 'Solar Eagle', powered by a combination on solar panels and solid oxide fuel cells developed by Versa Power Systems.
Boeing is also developing another high altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle UAV - the Phantom Eye, powered by hydrogen engines. Under another program, QinetiQ in the UK has developed a smaller solar powered drone - Zephyr UAS, which recently broke the world record for continuous flight.
DARPA considers the Vulture technology to provide services similar to a low-earth-orbit satellite, enabling rapid re-tasking and persistent surveillance capability addressing immediate needs of warfighters. Other attributes are typical of a satellite - such as low speed, high altitude and extended mission capability providing on-station persistence, zero logistics tail, and emissions, energy independence, minimal fleet size, absence of in-country footprint etc.
The program will help mature several key technologies, considered essential for future platforms of this type, including solar energy collection, reliable and efficient energy storage and retrieval, aircraft reliability and mission assurance, aeroelastics and flight control of a very large, flexible, lightly-loaded aircraft structure.
At the other extreme, new printed organic and Dye Sensitised Solar Cells DSSC are selling well this year, both of them in the form of solar bags that charge your phone. Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide CIGS flexible photovoltaics on solar bags is not yet printed but Nanosolar has just put printed versions of this technology into production for various applications.
Multilayer printed electronics has been designed into some of the new electric cars to be launched in 2011. That can save up to 40% of cost, space and weight while improving reliability and life.
Beating the silicon chip
Printed transistors circuits are now lower cost than primitive silicon chips such as timers, basic RFID and so on. Kovio of the USA has landed an order for printed nanosilicon day and single trip paper tickets for the Los Angeles Metro replacing silicon chip versions at potentially one tenth of the cost. Each has over 1000 printed transistors in its circuit. The China National Railway takes three billion of these ISO 14443 tickets yearly and it is also interested in using the printed version to save cost.
Rapidly broadening repertoire
RFID antennas, membrane keyboards, battery testers on Duracell batteries, and electronic tamper evidence in packages are printed and orders are increasing. Several are at the one billion units a year level already. Mostly these make new things possible rather than replace conventional circuits on price. For example, a coin cell in a skin patch is bad practice because it can stop the blood. A printed version such as the Estee Lauder patch made in Israel, now selling ten million yearly, makes the function acceptable to physicians and authorities approving safety. Electric skin patches are soaked in a drug or cosmetic and the tiny voltage makes the skin porous, sharply improving absorption.
Many companies are now preparing electronic skin patches for drug delivery. Now Dai Nippon Printing in Japan has followed successful trials of self powered animated posters with actual orders for them on the Tokyo Metro. These have printed organic solar cells; printed ac electroluminescent animated light-emitting displays and printed electrophoretic alphanumerics. They even incorporate partially printed sound interfaces.
Investment floods in
The number of printed electronics start-ups and acquisitions has increased. Here are just a few examples. Rhodia in the UK, an international chemical company, has recently joined with the UK's Carbon Trust in a $7 million investment in solar energy start-up Eight19 to develop printed organic photovoltaic technology. This will use semi-conducting organic polymers to provide solar power at a price substantially lower than that offered by first and second-generation technologies. The solar cells will be similar in appearance to photographic films and be flexible, lightweight and extremely easy to install.
Heraeus of Germany has recently bought H.C.Starck of Germany, which makes the archetypal conductive polymer ink PEDOT:PSS. Bayer of Germany has bought Artificial Muscle Inc in the USA which prints elastic electrodes on its electroactive polymer film to make haptic touch switches (you feel what you activated for eg touch typing) and other products. Henkel of Germany has bought part of the UK company ICI to acquire conductive ink and other materials. 3M has just invested in Printechnologics which makes entirely printed electronic products, some of which interact with mobile phones. Solvay of Belgium is moving into printed electronics materials.
The annual IDTechEx Printed Electronics Europe 2011 event will be held in Dusseldorf, Germany, on April 5-6. It is Europe's largest event on the topic and will move the topic forward by covering perspectives from many new end users, and the latest progress with the technology. Registration is now open - early bird rate of 50% ending on December 17. For more details please see www.IDTechEx.com/peEUROPE.