Print 10 comment(s) - last by JonnyDough.. on Jul 30 at 7:13 AM

Flexible electronics will enable engineers to develop various devices, from roll-up displays to ultra-rugged field equipment.  (Source: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois)
Scientists working with carbon nanotubes and flexible circuitry continue to push reality towards fantasy.

One of the next gaps between science fiction and reality that electronics engineers are hoping to bridge is that of flexible displays and computers. While various groups have come up with ways to create flexible displays, like LG.Philips' electrophoretic display, mass production of any kind is still far off. Great strides have been made towards flexible circuitry as shown by Northwestern University's flexible dielectric material. The nanodielectric is not only flexible, but printable, which could tie into future integrated circuit production techniques.

As seen in last week's issues of the journal Nature, work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has brought engineers closer to mass production quality flexible ICs. Utilizing the popular carbon nanotube (CNT), UIUC's circuit is not only flexible, but much faster than typical organic circuitry. Organics have previously been too slow for use in devices like high speed displays.

The UIUC circuits are made using a combination of transfer printing and lithography techniques. First, the CNTs are deposited over the surface of a flexible substrate. The nanotubes are not forcefully aligned in any way, but due to their dispersion, form a conductive mat, similar to the University of Warwick's CNT microelectrode. Next, gold electrodes and various circuit components are applied over the substrate and CNT coating. Finally, to prevent the CNTs from bridging connections and short circuiting the network, soft lithography is used to cut channels between the electrodes, severing any nanotube connections that may bridge them.

One hurdle that organic circuitry has faced is a much lower operating speed than standard silicon devices. In order to be useful in high-speed circuitry, transistors must be capable of switching on and off thousands or millions of times per second. While the UIUC circuits haven't breached the megahertz barrier, their current speed of several kilohertz is more than enough for simple devices and RFID sensors and on par with that of current LCD circuitry.

There are no “high tech” processes involved in UIUC's circuits. Transfer printing and simple lithography techniques have been around for decades. While creating uniform nanotubes is difficult outside of a laboratory, it is certainly not an uncommon procedure at this time. The simplicity of the fabrication process favors mass production, should a few small developments be made.

Jet printed nanotubes made headlines back in 2006 when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and University of Oulu scientists used a standard ink jet printer to print a popular picture of Albert Einstein using ink made of dissolved CNTs. Since then, jet printing has become widely used in CNT research. Further refinement to printing processes could benefit the UIUC circuits by virtue of printing a more precise pattern of nanotubes. This could eliminate the need for the lithography step of fabrication entirely.

The nanotube printing process is not alone in areas that could see improvement. High precision methods of nanotube production are needed to insure that the nanotubes used are of high purity and similar mechanical dimensions. In conjunction with a refined printing process, this could benefit the UIUC circuits both in ease of production and in quality management.

Mass produced flexible displays and wearable computers are not far off. Technological advances like those at the University of Illinois are moving these futuristic devices further from books and movies and closer to our homes and pockets.

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By amanojaku on 7/28/2008 11:20:59 PM , Rating: 2
One day you'll be able to print your own RAM modules or expansion cards. We'll probably be dead by then, but people who can take advantage of that would have a ball. Of course, the printers will be expensive, the supplies ridiculously expensive and available only through the printer manufacturer, and you'll need to pay for upgrade programs to print new devices. The convenience of cutting out shipping times (even factoring in printing) almost makes it worth it. I would probably buy one, if I could afford it.

RE: Imagine...
By Cosworth on 7/28/2008 11:27:13 PM , Rating: 2
It would have been very expensive for anyone to have a printing press in their own homes, yet today, printers are commonplace and cheap. True, it may not be in our lifetime, but I'd be willing to bet that eventually, with time, that will become pretty cheap. :)

RE: Imagine...
By Bruneauinfo on 7/29/2008 1:43:58 AM , Rating: 2
at the same time gfx and other expansion cards will be about as cherished as books are today.

RE: Imagine...
By StevoLincolnite on 7/29/2008 6:45:33 AM , Rating: 2
*pulls the books out of the fireplace*

RE: Imagine...
By JonnyDough on 7/30/2008 7:13:08 AM , Rating: 1
Of course, the printers will be expensive, the supplies ridiculously expensive and available only through the printer manufacturer, and you'll need to pay for upgrade programs to print new devices.

Not if they're manufactured by HP. The printers will be cheap and you'll pay as much for 3 ink cartridges as you did for the original printer which included both a color and a black cartridge. So in other words, you'll pay as much for the printer as you do an ink cartridge.

We'll probably be dead by then

Speak for yourself. I plan on getting cryogenically frozen and floating around space in a Big Boy until the year 2999. I want to be here for the year 3000 bash. If it's anything like Y2K it'll be worth the extra gazillion dollars spent on liquid nitro.

at the same time gfx and other expansion cards will be about as cherished as books are today.

Doubtful. Books aren't cherished today. Ask anyone under 25 what their favorite book is and there is a good chance they'll tell you they love their XBox.

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke

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