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A scientists holds a flexible array of printed transistors based on Northwestern University's new self-assembling nanodialectric material.  (Source: Northwestern University)
Roll-up, transparent computers and displays are just one of the neat sci-fi gadgets a new material from Northwestern University may lead to.

DailyTech has in the past covered research into the effects of long term exposure to space bound radiation on humans. Though mankind has spent many years in space, the effects of prolonged exposure, even under ideal circumstances, are as of yet unknown. Though the human part of space travel is the most important part of the equation for manned flight, radiation poses a series threat to other participants – especially electronics.

The effects of radiation on over-the-counter electronics are, in contrast, fairly well known. One of the most important parts of any electronic appliance, the transistor, is one of the most susceptible components to radiation. The problem comes from the absorptive properties of the silicon dioxide dielectrics that insulate a transistor's gate from its semiconductor components. Silicon dioxide captures radiation, which in turn creates electrons and holes. This process eventually builds up enough of a charge to short circuit the transistor, destroying it.

Not only do the human parts of a manned space odyssey need to be protected from the harsh environs of space, the fragile machinery that carries them will have to be as well. To address this concern, scientists at Northwestern University have delivered a new type of transistor to use in the International Space Station for testing. The prototype transistors were placed outside the space station where they will gain unprotected exposure to space radiation for the period of one year.

The transistors are based on a new material, dubbed SANDs for self-assembling nanodielectrics, and are the product of research into creating new types of dielectrics for future technology. The Northwestern group's goal was to create a dielectric material that was not only robust, but printable; something that could be used in transparent displays or flexible electronics. Ultimately they accomplished this by utilizing a dipping process to create thin films of self-assembled molecules.

Tobin Marks, Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor of Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences explains, “It’s not just that these transistors are only good for outer space -- that’s an illustration of just how tough they are. There is one technology on Earth, and only one, that will create as many features per unit time as a chip plant, and that’s a modern newspaper printing plant, since the paper flies at hundreds of feet per second. Every time Intel wants to make a new chip, it costs billions of dollars and takes years to do. And yet every day they print a new New York Times. So we thought, could you use printing to create electronic circuits?”

Preliminary tests with nuclear reactors show promising results for the SANDs. They appear to be highly resistant to radiation exposure, so NASA has taken a keen interest. Should the ISS tests return favorable results, the new material could revolutionize space electronics in terms of endurance and lifespan.

Aside from the obvious benefits in being radiation resistant, the group hopes to see the new material find use in many other fields -- wherever flexible, hardy and printable circuitry could find itself utilized. Some examples they cite range from solar panels to cell phones to flat-panel displays. One goal is to create inexpensive RFID tags to compliment or replace bar codes in stores. Cashiers could more easily interact with the tags, scanning an entire cart's contents at once along with alerting her if an item has reached its expiration date or informing her and the computer if the item is low on stock levels.

While the Northwestern group has already succeeded in making printed circuitry using their new material, they continue to research transistor materials that can be used as inks. The combination of a printable transistor with a highly durable dielectric substrate will likely lead to some very nifty electronics in the future.

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Would be nice
By FITCamaro on 6/16/2008 10:48:21 AM , Rating: 2
One goal is to create inexpensive RFID tags to compliment or replace bar codes in stores. Cashiers could more easily interact with the tags, scanning an entire cart's contents at once along with alerting her if an item has reached its expiration date or informing her and the computer if the item is low on stock levels.

But you mention RFID around some privacy nut and they'll be like "THEY'RE TRYING TO TRACK US!".

At least the military has taken up use of RFID for its inventory tracking.

RE: Would be nice
By Motoman on 6/16/2008 10:55:16 AM , Rating: 2
I think RFID make a lot of sense, if the little buggers and related tech can be made economically. Real-time warehousing inventory, quick check-outs, automated chain-of-possession, etc.

But yeah...don't be putting them in my driver's license, passport, or whatever. That would make me unhappy.

RE: Would be nice
By ikkeman2 on 6/16/2008 11:08:05 AM , Rating: 3
Yeah - please put an RFID in all my spiffy new stuff - so potential thieves can ride around the neighbourhood with a scanner and know exactly what I have, and where I put it...

RFID has a lot of potential. The trouble is that potential is directionless -

RE: Would be nice
By masher2 on 6/16/2008 11:24:08 AM , Rating: 5
> "RFID has a lot of potential. The trouble is that potential is directionless..."

The same can be said of every new technology. Can you imgine what "privacy nuts" would have said 30 years ago about you having a computer in your own home, connected to every other computer in the entire world, all sending and receiving unknown data constantly?

And yet, we still manage to live with it today.

RE: Would be nice
By snownpaint on 6/16/2008 1:50:27 PM , Rating: 2
RFID are here to stay..

As large corporations start taking over the US Discount Consumer's shopping interests (buying cheap or bulk), RFIDs will be used by those Corps. to handle logistics, inventory, and improve sales processing. As these large corps. begin to make most of the product they sell in their warehouse/stores, they will impregnate RFID in them.. It can be helped, they want a smoother running business and increase profits that RFID can offer.

Also RFID have a short working range.. So driving around picking up signals is pretty hard without some super powerful and sensitive equipment.. If a crook wanted to know what was in my pantry, or how many milk carton where in my fridge, power to him/her.. It would be easier to break in and peak.

Finally, Most of the CPU even Dual Core are printed on flat 2D surfaces.. Some Cell Processors are 3D, but heat buildup between the layers is still a problem.. (Daily Tech Article, Supercomputer cooling) I agree on making 3D processors, I would like to see Transistors printed around thin wires, that are woven like a screen. The surface area, and ability to pass cool air or liquid would be awesome.

It is this fast printing of transistors/circuitry that will send the computer industry through another revolution. Printing the memory/transistor, making new CPU in weeks, eliminating expensive dyes, and reducing cost to consumers.

I can see the FCC getting a little up-tight on these Radiation Resistance CPUs. It wouldn't be susceptible to outside interference required by FCC regulations..

RE: Would be nice
By Motoman on 6/16/2008 3:22:25 PM , Rating: 2
...the RFID should be in the packaging, not in the item itself...such that once you get it home and unpack it, the RFID token goes out with the trash.

Also, RFID transpoders are very weak...rather than "driving around your neighborhood" any potential thieves with an RFID reader would have to be standing right against the wall of your house hoping for any merchandise that you hadn't unpacked which point they're better off just looking in the window anyway.

RE: Would be nice
By Haven Bartton on 6/16/2008 4:04:30 PM , Rating: 2
RFIDs for military equipment? Looks like the 'Sons of the Patriots' system is already coming into play...

RE: Would be nice
By willssi on 6/16/2008 5:05:59 PM , Rating: 2
I'm surprised at the almost hostile stance people here are taking against privacy. The United States constitution enshrines privacy, and callously dismissing any issues which encroach on it does nothing but hurt us as a country.

Oh wait, you've called them privacy nuts ; well if anyone who has privacy issues with RFID tags is nuts, the discussion is settled. After all, who's going to argue for the side that's crazy by definition?

Sorry for the rant. Oh and for "Motoman": passive RFIDs (powered only by the incoming EM radiation and therefor the smallest and most likely to be used in things like driver's licenses) are now able to transmit up to 650 feet (, There are legitimate privacy concerns.

RE: Would be nice
By Motoman on 6/16/2008 6:44:26 PM , Rating: 2
Wow. I did not know that.

Even more reason to keep them out of my driver's license and/or passport.

And more reason to be sure to throw away your packaging right away, I reckon.

If any manufacturer started putting RFIDs actually *in* their products, then that would be a huge problem.

RE: Would be nice
By Reclaimer77 on 6/17/2008 9:22:35 PM , Rating: 2
No matter how " inexpensive " they are, they can't be cheaper than bar codes.

RE: Would be nice
By jRaskell on 6/18/2008 2:04:50 PM , Rating: 2
But it's entirely possible that there could be savings in inventory management and tracking that would more than make up for the additional cost of the RFID devices.

This could help us in all sorts of areas
By OxBow on 6/16/2008 4:21:28 PM , Rating: 3
If they can make this robust and inexpensive enough, it has the potential to revolutionize our power grid. They barely mention it in the article, but if they could print photoelectric cells using this technology we could be looking at nearly disposable solar cells that could be flexibly connected to just about anything. This could be integrated into roofing systems, auto bodies, clothing, etc.

They're testing this for durability by placing these test samples on the space station and inside nuclear reactors. If they can handle those stresses, I think they could handle a lot of everyday abuse around the house. The article mentioned that the hope is to be able to print circuits at offset press speeds, that would make circuits ridiculously cheap. The combination of durable and cheap is what we need to make solar power viable.

RE: This could help us in all sorts of areas
By rhuarch on 6/20/2008 11:44:49 AM , Rating: 2

They are already mass producing pretty much exactly what you are talking about.

By vuchkov on 6/24/2008 7:39:07 AM , Rating: 2
See also

By MrBlastman on 6/16/2008 12:05:14 PM , Rating: 2
I realize the technology is in its infancy, but I'd like to see them progress towards a three dimensional implemenation of this if they are to truely advance its potential. Otherwise we'll have sprawling circuits that go on for large distances which would create performance threshold governed by the speed of light.

That aside, I hope the orbital experiment bodes well. I can see all kinds of uses for it on a less-than microprocessor scale. It might even lead to improved tools to monitor nuclear power plants giving the anti-nuclear movement more sand in their face.

By sheh on 6/16/2008 7:54:07 PM , Rating: 2
Sounds like something that may eventually benefit RepRap.

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