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What are plastic electronics?

Plastic electronics technology encompasses a number terms, some of which can be confusing. However, when you know what individual terms mean, the entire market starts to make more sense.


The Galaxy 7.7 from Samsung uses an AMOLED screenAMOLED - stands for Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode, and is a form of display on televisions, smartphones and tablets. A number of companies have launched products using AMOLED screens over the course of the last 12 months.

Backplane - the portion of a display that controls the pixels located in the frontplane.

Barrier film - a flexible transparent film to cover materials involved in organic electronics, protecting them from exposure to oxygen and water vapour, allowing them to remain non-rigid and extending their life span considerably. Developments in barrier film technology are making it more instrumental for plastic electronics products

Building-integrated photovoltaics - solar cells integrated into a building design, with the intention of supplying power. Quite often these are made up of thin-film or transparent solar cells that cover a large area. Areas exploited for solar cell integration include windows, glass facades and roofs; and some solar cells are being developed for indoor use.

Carbon nanotubes are strong and conductive, and able to be used in areas such as ITO alternativesCarbon nanotubes - molecular-scale tubes of graphite carbon, with strong electronic properties. They can be metallic or semiconducting depending on their structure, making some more conductive than copper, and others react similar to silicone. This could lead to nanoscale electronic devices.

Carbon nanotubes have been developed to replace indium tin oxide, a standard material in touchscreens for consumer electronics devices.

Colour rendering index - the index by which a light source is measured on how accurately it can reproduce all frequencies of the colour spectrum. The lower the CRI, the less accurate its colours are.

Conductive ink - ink that is able to conduct electricity: it can be printed on a number of materials including paper and fabrics. It allows for more scope than etching out conventional circuit boards. Recently, companies have invested in the production of graphene based conductive inks, which can be used in retail packaging.

Dye-sensitised solar cell - a form of thin-film solar cell. Rather than thick silicon plates, a molecular dye, which absorbs sunlight, is places on a thin film beneath a transparent electrode, used to capture the energy produced.

The technology, which mimics the photosynthesis process in plants, can absorb much lower levels of light than conventional solar cell technology, making it suitable for indoor light or cloudy conditions.

Electrochromic - substances that change colour or transparency when an electrical charge is applied, such as LCD displays.

Shelf labels using e-paper can be quickly updatedElectronic shelf label - a thin display used by retailers to advertise the prices of products on shelves. Thin enough to sit in front of the products, they allow quick price amendments without the waste of paper. Electronic shelf labels have been designed in both LCD and e-paper formats.

Electrowetting - the process whereby the surface tension of a liquid on a solid surface can be modified by applying a voltage. The technology opens the possibility of low-power, colour and video-rate displays, according to developers like Liquavista and Gamma Dynamics.

E-paper - a display which mimics the effects of paper, reflecting light rather than being backlit, and is able to hold images without electronic stimulation until required.

Applications include e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle, electronic shelf labels and other signage.

E-reader - a portable device mainly used for reading books or documents, using e-paper technology. Notable e-reader products include the Amazon Kindle and

Flexible products are in development, but still some way off being marketableFlexible electronics - the mounting of electronics onto flexible materials, such as plastics or conductive polyester. They are often printed, and are usually low cost, easier to produce and much thinner than conventional circuits, allowing for a wider range of applications.

Frontplane - The display of an electronic device, which can be made up of various elements.

Graphene - A thin yet strong material with excellent conductive properties. Formed from carbon atoms, graphene is more conductive than copper, and mixed into plastics, can turn them into strong semiconductors. Countries such as the UK are investing in graphene as its importance in plastic electronics technology increases.

Heterojunction - A junction between two semiconductors, they are often used in organic photovoltaics to transfer energy.

Hybrid electronics - a device or circuit that incorporates both organic and inorganic elements

Indium tin oxide - a transparent conducting coating used for many displays, such as flat screen televisions and OLED applications, and solar cells. It is not flexible, and is used in mainly rigid products. Concerns over supply and cost mean a number of companies are developing alternatives to ITO, such as PEDOT and carbon nanotube layers.

Inkjet - a printer which places droplets of ink onto a subject. It can be used with conductive ink to produce printed electronics, and is more precise in doing so.

Smart buildings are able to control light levelsIntegrated smart systems - A series of sensors and other electronics which are integrated into systems allowing them to function independently. One example may be a house, which is able to sense temperature and alter sunlight levels or control air conditioning.

Large-area electronics - Often manufactured using roll-to-roll techniques, large-area electronics are plastic electronics products printed on large substrates with the ability to cover more area, such as organic photovoltaics. Funding competitions have recently been announced to encourage collaboration on the development of large-area electronics.

Lumens per watt - The measurement of light output per electricity used, measured in watts. The higher the Lumens, and lower the wattage, the more efficient the product.

Nanoink - ink, formed of nanoparticles, which is able to conduct electricity. As an ink, it can be printed onto thin film, or paper, allowing it to conduct current.

Nanoparticles - particles with the dimensions of 100nm or less, extremely small, and able to be used with thin electronic circuits.

OLED display - a display made up of organic light emitting diodes, which emit light under electrical response. As they do not need a backlight, products using this display can be made thinner, and more flexible. OLED displays are already used in smartphones and are expected to increase in popularity with use in televisions during 2012

OLED light - a thin or flexible light panel, made of a single-colour OLED display.

Organic semiconductor - a carbon-based semiconductor, where the flow of electrons is regulated by the properties of the material used.

Organic solar cells can be produced in large areasOrganic solar cell - a solar cell, which can absorb light and produce electricity, printed using organic material, such as polymer substrates.

PEDOT - a polymer-based material used in the production of printed organic electronics, especially organic solar cells. The conductive layer material is considered a potential replacement for indium tin oxide. It could open a new avenue for nanoelectronic devices.

Photonics - the transmission, signal processing, amplification, detection and sensing of light. Comprising technologies such as LEDs, wireless sensor networks and solar cells, it is becoming increasingly convergent with organic electronics

PMOLED - Passive Matrix OLEDs are smaller than other OLEDs, are controlled in rows and columns, rather than by each individual pixel.

Printed battery - An energy storage device which is printed onto a flexible substrate, printed batteries are used to make a flexible electronic product remain so, with no rigid parts. They are often printed on paper.

Printed diagnostic devices / biosensor - electronic devices used in the detecting or sensing of medical conditions. Using printed electronic concepts, developers are working on cheap, disposable versions of these devices.

Printed electronics - an electronic circuit or device that is printed onto a substrate, rather than etched. They can be flexible, and thin, to aid the design of the products using them.

RFID tags are printed on a number of substrates including paperQLED - a quantum dot LED, which is thinner than OLEDs, and is able to emit a brighter range of colours. This allows for thinner, more visible and more flexible displays.

Quantum dots - a small particle of semiconductor material, which is able to be tuned to emit light of differing colours. They can also be used to capture light and convert it to energy in organic photovoltaics.

RFID - Radio Frequency ID is a method of transmitting data to a reader via radio frequencies. It can allow for products to be given unique ID codes, which can be easily scanned for information to appear. They do not need to be visible to be read. RFID technology has a number of potential uses, including healthcare.

Roll-to-roll - the process of creating flexible electronics, often meaning being printed on a roll of film, or plastic.

Smart packaging - product packaging with integrated electronics that is able to give a range of information, from transmitting ID codes, to informing doctors when a patient takes their pills. Animated logos and sensors for brand protection are also being designed. A number of companies are already pushing forward with pilot products.

Smart textiles and fabrics - a material with integrated electronic properties. This could be printed on to be used in electronic devices, like fibres, or actual clothing with sensors embedded to allow monitoring of various conditions. Smart textiles are also becoming increasingly common in fashion.

Spin coating - a process used to apply thin-film coating to substrates, where an excess layer of fluid is applied, and then the substrate is spun at high speed to spread the fluid thinly over the surface.

Spray coating - a process to apply flexible electronics to substrates, using a spray on technique which can be done at room temperature.

Smart fabrics are becoming more widespread in fashion designThin-film - a layer of film, often around a nanometre thick. Used in roll-to-roll processes for electronic semiconductor production due to its cost.

Thin-film transistor - a transformer used in high-matrix LCD displays to control the individual sub-pixels.

Vacuum deposition - the process of depositing thin layers onto a substrate, such as a thin film. It is usually done in a vacuum.

Wearable electronics - electronic devices that are woven into fabrics, clothing and other material products. These could be monitors to measure various athletic or medical traits, such as heartbeat, perspiration or muscle control. They can also be used for novalty items or to act as chargers for mobile devices.