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Plugged in: Nanotechnology’s big challenges

Dan Rogers - 04 Aug 2010


Conductive nanoinks mean electronics can perform better and cost less, but technical issues and scaling up are testing suppliers and developers alike.

An electronic substrate printed with conductive inkThe ability to print electronics has opened up many opportunities, both for manufacturers of electronic devices and for those making products that can now include electronic circuitry. Clothing fabric, glass, plastic and even paper are being used as hosts for circuitry, meaning that electronics are easier, cheaper and simpler to integrate than ever before.

Driving the progress of printed electronics applications are the nanomaterials that add functionality such as conductivity. Nanoparticles have played a significant role in facilitating new applications for printed electronics, for instance making conductive inks with enhanced properties.

New research is taking nanomaterials and applying it innovatively in electronics. From nanotube batteries, printed on paper at Stanford University, to flexible solar cells created using printed nanomaterials at Konarka, the link between progressive printed electronics and nanotechnology is clear.

Bayer MaterialScience, a Germany-based producer of nanomaterials and nanoinks, has been working with partners on the development of printed electronics technologies for nanomaterials. The company produces BayInk TP CNT using carbon nanotubes, and BayInk TP S using silver nanoparticles.

Such materials are suitable for printing thin lines using small amounts of base materials, which could theoretically add conductivity to packaging, solar cells and displays at low cost.


Applications

Both Karsten Dierksen, head of R&D in printed electronics, and coatings physicist Stephan Nowak at Bayer believe a successful, commercial application is needed to galvanise the supply chain into expanding production, from the nanomaterial and manufacturing tools, to the final product itself.

'The problem with nanomaterials in printed electronics is that this is not only new materials, but also new products too. Several different technologies have to be at maturity at the same time,' Nowak remarks.

And Dierksen agrees the challenges facing the printed electronics industry mean conductive nanoink suppliers are seeing success elsewhere in the near-term.

He explains: 'We are finding applications in other markets that surprise us, as they are not directly corresponding with this technology. These products might end up achieving commercial success earlier, because they are simply reducing the cost of existing products in the same applications.

'Conductive inks are not all about printed and organic electronics, as other users are not facing the problem of launching brand new products.'

The successful exploitation of nanoinks depends on an application capturing the interest of consumers and creating the market demand that suppliers are looking for, to justify expansion. Early products like solar bags integrated with plastic and printed cells from Konarka and G24 Innovation will test consumer response.

Volume 3, issue 1Want to read more?
This article appears in full in Volume 3, issue 1 of +Plastic Electronics magazine, in our special 'Plugged in' feature on nanomaterials. This article covers the obstacles facing the use of nanomaterials in printed electronics, and forecasts how these challenges will be addressed. Other articles look at the use of nanosensors, and advances in conductive inks.
To subscribe to +Plastic Electronics and get immediate access to this article, as well as online access to archive articles and a postal copy of the next six issues, visit our subscriptions page.

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