Engineering researchers at Michigan State University have developed the first stretchable integrated circuit that is made entirely using an inkjet printer, raising the possibility of inexpensive mass production of smart fabric.
Imagine: an ultrathin smart tablet that can be stretched from mini-size to extra large. Or a rubber band-like wrist monitor that measures one’s heartbeat. Or wallpaper that turns an entire wall into an electronic display.
These are some of the potential applications of the stretchable smart fabric developed in the lab of Chuan Wang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. And because the material can be produced on a standard printer, it has a major potential cost advantage over current technologies that are expensive to manufacture.
“We can conceivably make the costs of producing flexible electronics comparable to the costs of printing newspapers,” said Wang. “Our work could soon lead to printed displays that can easily be stretched to larger sizes, as well as wearable electronics and soft robotics applications.”
The smart fabric is made up of several materials fabricated from nanomaterials and organic compounds. These compounds are dissolved in solution to produce different electronic inks, which are run through the printer to make the devices.
From the ink, Wang and his team have successfully created the elastic material, the circuit and the organic light-emitting diode, or OLED. The next step is combining the circuit and OLED into a single pixel, which Wang estimates will take one to two years. There are generally millions of pixels just underneath the screen of a smart tablet or a large display.
Once the researchers successfully combine the circuit and OLED into a working pixel, the smart fabric can be potentially commercialized.
Conceivably, Wang said, the stretchable electronic fabric can be folded and put in one’s pocket without breaking. This is an advantage over current “flexible” electronics material technology that cannot be folded.
“We have created a new technology that is not yet available,” Wang said. “And we have taken it one big step beyond the flexible screens that are about to become commercially available.”
Learn more: IS A STRETCHABLE SMART TABLET IN OUR FUTURE?
Rice University researchers say 2-D boron may be best for flexible electronics
Though they’re touted as ideal for electronics, two-dimensional materials like graphene may be too flat and hard to stretch to serve in flexible, wearable devices. “Wavy” borophene might be better, according to Rice University scientists.
The Rice lab of theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson and experimental collaborators observed examples of naturally undulating, metallic borophene, an atom-thick layer of boron, and suggested that transferring it onto an elastic surface would preserve the material’s stretchability along with its useful electronic properties.
Highly conductive graphene has promise for flexible electronics, Yakobson said, but it is too stiff for devices that also need to stretch, compress or even twist. But borophene deposited on a silver substrate develops nanoscale corrugations. Weakly bound to the silver, it could be moved to a flexible surface for use.
The research appears this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters.
Rice collaborated with experimentalists at Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University to study borophene, which has been made in small quantities. Under the microscope, borophene displays corrugations that demonstrate its wavy nature, meaning it can be highly stretched once removed from the substrate, or reattached to a soft one, Yakobson said.
The Rice group builds computer simulations to analyze the properties of materials from the atoms up. Simulations by first author Zhuhua Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher in Yakobson’s group, showed that hexagonal vacancies in borophene help soften the material to facilitate its corrugated form.
“Borophene is metallic in its typical state, with strong electron-phonon coupling to support possible superconductivity, and a rich band structure that contains Dirac cones, as in graphene,” Yakobson said.
There is a hitch: Borophene needs the underlying structure to make it wavy. When grown on a featureless surface, its natural form resembles graphene, the flat, chicken-wire arrays of carbon atoms. Zhang said borophene is better seen as a triangular lattice with periodic arrays of hexagonal vacancies.
Borophene prefers to be flat because that’s where its energy is lowest, Yakobson said. But surprisingly, when grown on silver, borophene adopts its accordion-like form while silver reconstructs itself to match. The corrugation can be retained by “re-gluing” boron onto another substrate.
“This wavy conformation so far seems unique due to the exceptional structural flexibility and particular interactions of borophene with silver, and may be initially triggered by a slight compression in the layer when a bit too many boron atoms get onto the surface,” Zhang said.
An engineering research team at the University of Alberta has invented a new transistor that could revolutionize thin-film electronic devices.
Their findings, published in the prestigious science journal Nature Communications (read the article here), could open the door to the development of flexible electronic devices with applications as wide-ranging as display technology to medical imaging and renewable energy production.
The team was exploring new uses for thin film transistors (TFT), which are most commonly found in low-power, low-frequency devices like the display screen you’re reading from now. Efforts by researchers and the consumer electronics industry to improve the performance of the transistors have been slowed by the challenges of developing new materials or slowly improving existing ones for use in traditional thin film transistor architecture, known technically as the metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor (MOSFET).
But the U of A electrical engineering team did a run-around on the problem. Instead of developing new materials, the researchers improved performance by designing a new transistor architecture that takes advantage of a bipolar action. In other words, instead of using one type of charge carrier, as most thin film transistors do, it uses electrons and the absence of electrons (referred to as “holes”) to contribute to electrical output. Their first breakthrough was forming an ‘inversion’ hole layer in a ‘wide-bandgap’ semiconductor, which has been a great challenge in the solid-state electronics field.
Water-based “Band-Aid” senses temperature, lights up, and delivers medicine to the skin.
MIT engineers have designed what may be the Band-Aid of the future: a sticky, stretchy, gel-like material that can incorporate temperature sensors, LED lights, and other electronics, as well as tiny, drug-delivering reservoirs and channels. The “smart wound dressing” releases medicine in response to changes in skin temperature and can be designed to light up if, say, medicine is running low.
When the dressing is applied to a highly flexible area, such as the elbow or knee, it stretches with the body, keeping the embedded electronics functional and intact.
Read more: Stretchable hydrogel electronics
A new world of flexible, bendable, even stretchable electronics is emerging from research labs to address a wide range of potentially game-changing uses. The common, rigid printed circuit board is slowly being replaced by a thin ribbon of resilient, high-performance electronics.
Over the last few years, one team of chemists and materials scientists has begun exploring military applications in harsh environments for aircraft, explosive devices and even combatants themselves.
Researchers will provide an update on the latest technologies, as well as future research plans, at the 250thNational Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS is the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting takes place here through Thursday.
“Basically, we are using a hybrid technology that mixes traditional electronics with flexible, high-performance electronics and new 3-D printing technologies,” says Benjamin J. Leever, Ph.D., who is at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “In some cases, we incorporate ‘inks,’ which are based on metals, polymers and organic materials, to tie the system together electronically. With our technology, we can take a razor-thin silicon integrated circuit, a few hundred nanometers thick, and place it on a flexible, bendable or even foldable, plastic-like substrate material,” he says.