Transatlantic nanotech research set to improve plastic electronics
A US nanotech firm is on the brink of sealing groundbreaking deals with two leaders in the field of printable semiconductors following collaborative work with the University of Cambridge at the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE).
Advance Nanotech, one of the four founding companies behind CAPE, has developed a novel composite comprised of organic polymers – similar to those used by Plastic Logic and Cambridge Display Technology – with nanostructured materials.
Advance is keeping the names of the companies involved under wraps while it finalises the finer points of the agreements.
Both firms are said to be interested in the “significant” progress in the development of this new organic semiconductor, which is set to bring low-cost flexible and printable electronics and all its associated wonders closer to market.
Chief technology officer for Advanced, Peter Gammel, said: “We are actively engaged with high volume commercial partners and are working on out an agreement to obtain a license to co-develop and jointly manufacture organic semi-conducting composites.
“We’re looking at a 2009/10 type market for flexible displays and RFID. The time frame we’re looking at takes in two steps: one year to 18 months to prove performance and then the same again to integrate and get a product flow.”
The new composite that is being developed at CAPE confronts two major obstacles in the world of organic semiconductors, the physical size of the print and the poor conductivity, or mobility.
CAPE researcher and a participant on the project, Dr Paul Beecher, said: “A one nanometre gap – a millionth of a millimetre – between the molecules of an organic polymer is sufficient to prevent effective charge transport.
“Today even the best polymer materials exhibit a conductivity that is two to three orders of magnitude lower than silicon.
“Our technology explores an alternative approach to overcoming the poor electrical properties of most organic semiconductors by exploiting the enhanced conductivity brought about by selected nanomaterials.
“Our most recent results suggest the potential of our technique for addressing this crucial market need.”
The work is the result of more than a year of intense R & D efforts. Selected nanomaterials have been successfully incorporated in organic polymers, thus turning insulating materials into composites that show promising transistor characteristics.
These composites have also proven quite stable, with no tendency to quickly form aggregates in solution, which therefore makes them suitable for inkjet print manufacturing.
Gammel said: “We’re very optimistic about the demand for printed electronics. IDTechEx estimates that printed electronics will grow to $30 billion (£16bn) in 2015 and reach $250bn (£135bn) by 2025.
“This simplification in the manufacturing of semiconductors will open up a world of new uses for electronics.
“We will be able to incorporate intelligent circuits into a variety of objects, from clothing to packaging. Dupont, PlasticLogic, Camb-ridge Display Technology and e-Ink are just a few of the companies who are participating in the printable electronics bandwagon.”
The future potential of this as a fully developed and economically viable technology is mind-boggling.
Advance says that electronic and optoelectronic fabrication plants will resemble printing presses and enormous markets could be created where conventional silicon chips cannot go today because they are too costly and rigid.
Tags on clothing could instruct a washing machine to choose the correct wash cycle, a computer could change the colour and pattern on a t-shirt, while a polaroid could bring images to life, mimicking the magical pictures described in the Harry Potter series of books.
However, the work being developed by the CAPE-Advance alliance will have to wait before it reaches the story book level.
Gammel said: “We could conceivably have cereal boxes waving at you, but the technology will only be deployed if they can support the extra cost.
“On packaging if you want to have video, the price is difficult to meet.
“Sensor packaging to ensure freshness of the contents is a big push for us and 2010 is an aggressive but achieveable target.
“Our RFID goal is a sub-five cent tag, at the moment it’s at 50 cent to a dollar.
“Because of the cost of development in the pharma industry, they can meet the extra cost more easily than the food industry, where the margins are tight and it is much harder to meet the prize.”