Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer that invented the geostationary satellite, famously said that any sufficiently advanced new science is indistinguishable from magic. The dream of printing electronics onto and into anything sounds pretty magical, particularly when it is said to involve creating bionic man, having edible electronics, smart clothing, skin patches that deliver drugs according to the need that they sense and many other things straight from comic books. However, there is now a clear road map taking us to these things.
The inks will make the profit
When we print electronics directly onto things, in the way that 85% of barcodes are printed today, there will be little market for substrates, cases, keyboards, mounted displays and the paraphernalia - and profit makers - of electronics today. The added value will be almost entirely in the ink. Some of these clever inks will cost ten times their weight in gold but, paradoxically, because they will be printed in layers only a few atoms thick, they will create very low cost devices.
To make transistors, solar cells, batteries and all the kit of parts of the electronic designer, we need semiconducting, conducting, insulating, light emitting, protecting and other inks. The solvent in one ink must not destroy the delicate layer put down just before. The inks must cure at low enough temperatures to use the lowest cost plastic films and even print on human skin.
To make edible electronics, the ink must be FDA approved for example. Edible electronics goes beyond the recent patents of Eastman Kodak, which refer to monitoring smart pills to prove they were taken and see when they are absorbed by the body (the circuit can no longer be sensed). Even children's electronic toys must be edible if they are likely to be chewed. The new biodegradable electronics printed on paper certainly comes in that category.
To make the new invisible electronics, all the layers must be transparent. This is not dreaming. For example, in the UK, startup 3T Technologies Ltd calls itself "The Transparent Electronics Company" and works with the researchers at Cambridge University. Around the world, fully transparent photovoltaics, batteries, transistor arrays and other printed components have already been demonstrated and a watch will soon be launched where the cover glass has an invisible layer that charges the battery from heat as well as light. The battery then lasts longer than you do.
In the last few months we have seen demonstrations of smart contact lenses and even replacement eyes that provide superhuman capabilities. Bionic man is certainly an objective of many new implants and organ replacements employing biocompatible electronics and therefore biocompatible inks.
Letting soldiers stand up
The ancient Roman soldier carried prefabricated forts and other structures long before IKEA claimed that prefabricated furniture as a breakthrough. However, the modern American "warfighter", as they call them these day, carries more weight than the ancient Roman soldier so the US Army has a program to reduce the weight of what he carries by 70% in a few years from now, even while enhancing his capabilities. That will be achieved by electronic apparel, printed batteries, printed photovoltaics and body sensors and more from the world of modern printing.
Sometimes people get carried away with themselves. Organic chemists have been particularly strident in claiming that all this printed electronics will end up being based on organic inks. The authorities have tended to agree and the considerable funding of research by the European Commission has usually had titles like Polyapply and Poly this and that.
Companies such as Plastic Logic and Polymer Vision have been created and there is an Organic Electronics Association based in Germany. There are conferences called Plastic Electronics and Organic Electronics. So far, so misleading. What matters is what works and is safe and affordable and, although there are many exciting organic semiconducting and dielectric inks being put into production, most printed electronic devices employ both organic and inorganic inks. An increasing percentage have at least one layer that combines organic and inorganic materials in one ink or at least elemental carbon with organic compounds.
With partially printed thin film fuel cells, actuators, microphones, loudspeakers, lasers and more being evolved it never was realistic to think that organic or inorganic chemistry alone could conquer all. Indeed, transparent electronics is usually based on inorganic compounds in the ink and most research on photovoltaics - the most popular topic - concerns inorganic alternatives to silicon.
Consider printed semiconductors. These are used in a special organic form in photovoltaics where the electroluminescent function is suppressed by C60 carbon buckyballs and in displays where the opposite is the case. Printed transistors alone have many requirements, from high frequency of operation to low power wastage, transparency to high power handling, light emission and so on. Put at its simplest, the higher the maximum frequency of operation of the transistor, the more gadgets you can make and sell. One of the primary properties of the semiconducting inks put down to make transistors is the charge carrier mobility in the resulting layer because that affects the maximum frequency of operation.
Organic inks are being improved slowly in this respect but their mobility is very poor. People realised that certain inorganic compounds with one hundred times the mobility could be put down in thin layers but printing and curing them at high speed reel to reel seemed impossible. No longer. Tokyo Institute of Technology working with Toppan Printing, to name just one partnership, is now doing that with InGaZnO semiconductors. The organic carrier is destroyed during curing. Then along came Kovio just recently with nanosilicon ink with one thousand times the mobility of organic semiconductors and the ability to print much smaller transistors so thousands can be deposited on the area taken by the old fashioned silicon chip, a few millileters across. By contrast, organic transistor arrays tend to be as big as a train ticket as yet. In the near term, Kovio alone will meet the favourite specification of Radio Frequency Identification RFID, replacing the silicon chip in the label with something printed that is initially replacing the chip with something 80% cheaper and later 90% cheaper. With the great variety of needs for very different transistors, it is not surprising that Plastic ePrint, a developer of printed transistors that achieve up to terahertx frequency, has recently changed its name to Nano ePrint to reflect the fact that it will employ organic and inorganic semiconductors as appropriate.
Now we can seriously think of replacing ten trillion barcodes yearly with something more reliable and versatile. The suggestion that the silicon chip would let us do that was always laughable.
The new photovoltaics
Silicon solar cells are heavy, brittle, inefficient and expensive and most of them only sell because the supplier or user gets subsidised by government by one means or another. Thin films of cadmium telluride on low cost flexible substrates are now found to be cheaper to buy, install and own than silicon and over $1.5 billion of orders have recently been placed with First Solar alone to prove it. No one has yet figured out how to print these but next in line are Dye Sensitised Solar Cells using ruthenium based organic dye on titanium dioxide nanoparticles and the other popularly researched alternative of Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide CIGS.
Factories now exist or are in construction ink jet printing these on low cost polymer subtrates reel to reel, notably G24 Innovations in the UK on stream now and soon Nanosolar in the US and Germany. DSSC makes electricity from heat and light ("thermophotovoltaics") and is unusually tolerant of light at narrow angles of incidence and even polarised light from reflections. CIGS can be very efficient in converting light into electricity. But there is still a place for printed organic photovoltaics where area is not a problem but price is very critical.
Everyone wants to say they are in nano technology. However, in printed electronics, particularly of conductors, most of these projects involve particles or film thicknesses of tens of nanometers. That often means that too much expensive material such as silver is employed, given the need to produce huge volumes of labels and huge areas of billboards to give them such things as moving colour pictures, solar panels and the like. Enter NanoMas Technology, which makes consistent three micron particles of silver in ink, thus reducing the melting point tenfold. You can dip a pen in their black ink, write on even acetate film and melt the particles together without distorting the film, creating a mirror like layer with electrical conduction near to bulk silver, using very little material. Magic indeed, and not limited to silver.
Favourite printing technologies
The most common printing technology for research and preproduction of printed electronics is screen printing and the most common technology in full production is ink jet printing, including Plastic Logic flexible electrophoretic displays based on titanium dioxide with organics and their organic backplane transistor arrays. However, there are also many projects employing flexo, gravure, litho and other options or a combination for different layers, often with some spin coating, chemical vapour deposition or even RF sputtering as interim stages for difficult layers.
To see the whole picture attend Printed Electronics Europe, Dresden Germany 8-9 April www.idtechex.com/peEurope.