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Publication Date: 06/1/2010
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The Truly Integrated Circuit

For 40 years, integrated circuits have integrated little more than transistors, diodes and sensors onto one piece of silicon, gallium arsenide, or other similar material. Now these circuits are being taken to a different level — where most electrical and electronic components are co-deposited on flexible substrates. Those flexible substrates are key, because this new form of electronics will be affordable and desirable for everything from apparel to human skin and electrical and consumer packaged goods — applications where surfaces are rarely ever flat.

Savvy designers, seeking to use the new electronics to create "The iPod of labels", or some other blockbuster product, think of the flexible substrate as part of functioning of the product. For example, there are flexible films that emit and detect ultrasound, act as loudspeakers or change shape when subjected to an electrical field. The latter use electroactive polymer film and the recent purchase of Artificial Muscle Inc AMI by Bayer MaterialScience is a nice reminder that there are plenty of exits for venture capitalists backing these new printed electronics companies.

Stretchable Electronics
AMI polymer films, with printed stretchable electrodes, are used in the development, design and manufacture of actuators and sensing components. They offer significant advantages over traditional technologies used in this area. They provide touchscreen panels in consumer electronics with "awareness through touch" by creating authentic tactile feedback, just like a conventional keyboard. This innovative technology has significant application potential, particularly for electronic devices like smart phones, gaming controllers and touchpads. AMI's initially targeted products include valves, pumps, positioners, power generation, snake-like, self-aiming camera lenses and sensors. With the emerging need for haptics in consumer electronics, particularly in touchscreens, AMI uses EPAM to create the Reflex brand of haptic actuators. These products are targeted for a wide range of consumer electronics including smartphones and other portable electronics, computer peripherals, gaming controllers and touchpads.

Meanwhile, MC10 Inc, a company formed to commercialize stretchable electronics, has recently entered into a licensing agreement with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The agreement calls for MC10 Inc. to have access to technology contained in patents dealing with stretchable silicon technology from Professor John Rogers' laboratory. The venture-backed startup is currently developing processes and applications that enable high performance electronics to be placed in novel environments and form factors. MC10's approach transforms traditionally rigid, brittle semiconductors into flexible, stretchable electronics while retaining excellent electrical performance. Stretchable silicon allows for a degree of design freedom capable of expanding the functionality of existing products while providing a platform on which new microelectronics-enabled applications can be developed.

Surgeon's Tools
In a completely different approach, the electroactive devices of Artificial Muscle AB in Sweden, with stretchable printed electrodes, make surgeons' tools snake through the human body. Researchers at Purdue University have created a magnetic "ferropaper" that might be used to make low-cost "micromotors" for surgical instruments, tiny tweezers to study cells and miniature speakers. Control and monitoring electronics and electrics can be printed onto this new smart paper. The material is made by impregnating ordinary paper — even newsprint — with a mixture of mineral oil and "magnetic nanoparticles" of iron oxide. The nanoparticle-laden paper can then be moved using a magnetic field.

"Paper is a porous matrix, so you can load a lot of this material into it," said Babak Ziaie, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering.

The new technique represents a low-cost way to make small stereo speakers, miniature robots or motors for a variety of potential applications, including tweezers to manipulate cells and flexible fingers for minimally invasive surgery.

"Because paper is very soft it won't damage cells or tissue," Ziaie said. "It is very inexpensive to make. You put a droplet on a piece of paper, and that is your actuator, or motor."

"Smart" Paper
Kimberley Clark is one of the latest to announce a smart substrate suitable for printed electronics. Its cPaper is paper impregnated with carbon rather than the more expensive carbon nanotubes, and it can be used as heating elements, electrodes in printed supercapacitors and supercabatteries and in many other applications.

In a different approach, the University of Uppsala in Sweden may be on the way to developing improved printed batteries. It is working on a novel nanostructured high-surface area electrode material for energy storage applications comprised of cellulose fibers of algal origin individually coated with a 50nm thin layer of polypyrrole. Results show the highest reported charge capacities and charging rates for an all polymer paper-based battery. The composite conductive paper material may well open up new possibilities for the production of environmentally friendly, cost-effective, up-scalable and lightweight energy storage systems.

Also newly arrived is the Paper-e of the New University of Lisbon, which is an inspired way of printing transistor circuits by making the gate of the transistor the paper substrate itself.

Interestingly, these transistors, made with the superior, new zinc oxide based printed semiconductors ,have much better characteristics than one would expect at first sight and the physics of this is currently being clarified. And of course, they're all environmentally friendly and biodegradable.

Printed Smart Shelf
Plastic Electronic GmbH in Austria specializes in capacitive printed electronic structures. Its "smart shelf" consists of polymer film that deforms when things are placed on it and the crossbar conductive patterns on both sides monitor the change in capacitance and thus the position and relative weight of what is on the shelf. Now NTERA, Inc., and Plastic Electronic GmbH, have entered into a licensing agreement to develop advanced printed electronics products using NTERA's flexible printed electrochromic displays.

Polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) and its derivatives are made into ferroelectric ink used to print non-volatile rewritable random access memory on flexible film. It can also form a film itself that forms a smart substrate for printed electronics, for use in such items as electret microphones and energy harvesting "flags" and, under the water, "eels".

Contact: IDTechEx 617-949-7436 Web:

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