Printing Nano-Electronics on Everything: Phones, Planes, Fish Tanks
Imagine you could print a thin layer of micro-electronics on any surface. With 3D printing, this is now a reality – reports the Economist – and that makes any surface a smart surface.
It’s not traditional copper, but rather micro-building blocks of silver.
Silver is a better conductor of electricity than copper, which is typically used in circuits, but silver is expensive and tricky to print because it melts at 962°C. However, by making silver into particles just five nanometres (billionths of a metre) in size, Xerox has produced a silver ink which melts at less than 140°C. That allows it to be printed using inkjet and other processes relatively cheaply, says Paul Smith, the director of research at the laboratory. Only minuscule quantities of silver are used and there is no waste, unlike chemical-etching processes.
Xerox’s PARC research centre in Palo Alto, California, is developing ways to use such inks. These can print circuits for various components, including flexible display screens, sensors and antennae for radio-frequency security tags. With the emergence of additive-manufacturing techniques, it starts to become possible to print such things directly onto the product itself, says Janos Veres, the manager of PARC’s printed-electronics team.
So how difficult would it be to print a phone complete with all its electronic gubbins? Optomec is developing applications which could provide some of the necessary steps. Besides antennae these include edge circuits for the screen, three-dimensional connections for chips, multiple-layer circuits and touch-screen parts. It would also be possible to print the battery. The biggest challenge would be to print the chips that are the brains of the phone. These contain millions of transistors in a square millimetre and are at present made in silicon-fabrication plants costing $10 billion or more. Yet embedding even some circuitry means phones could be made slimmer, as well as reducing the costs of materials and assembly.
The impact of this research is astounding. Now any glass surface can become a phone, planes can have intelligent electronics on their wings, and fish tanks can observe and adjust the water temperature.
Read the full story at the Economist.
Foxconn construction photo by Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons license.