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Researchers have created a printing process that can print on curved, irregular surfaces with nanoink. The resulting antenna enjoys almost perfect reception.  (Source: University of Illinois)

Postdoctoral researcher Jacob Adams designed the unique printing process with principle investigators Jennifer Bernhard and Jennifer Lewis.  (Source: University of Illinois)
"Can you hear me now?"

It's happened to all of us.  You're in the middle of an intense conversation, and your cell phone cuts out.  Even today, in the era of 4G and smartphones, it's still difficult to completely avoid the most basic failure of a cell phone -- a dropped call.

Enterprising researchers at the University of Illinois have devised an antenna that uses a revolutionary 100 µm micro-nozzle silver nanoink printing process to print an antenna on a 3D substrate to try to remedy that problem [press release].

As a demo, they printed nanoink on the outside or exterior of a hollow hemisphere of glass.  This wasn't easy to do.  States Jennifer T. Bernhard [profile], the computer and electrical engineering professor leading the project, "Unlike planar substrates, the surface normal is constantly changing on curvilinear surfaces, which presents added fabrication challenges. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of 3D printed antennas on curvilinear surfaces."

Current phone antennas perform relatively poorly, because many are shorter than their operating wavelength. And some are poorer than others (like the first hardware version iPhone 4).  Designing a 3D antenna has been the goal of several research projects.  Describes Professor Bernhard, "Recent attention has been directed toward producing antennas by screen-printing, inkjet printing, and liquid metal-filled microfluidics in simple motifs, such as dipoles and loops."

But she feels that her design is the best attempt at creating a 3D antenna yet.  She states, "Omnidirectional printing of metallic nanoparticle inks offers an attractive alternative for meeting the demanding form factors of 3D electrically small antennas (ESAs)."

She says that the antenna they printed and tested was near "perfect" from a reception perspective.  She writes, "There has been a long-standing problem of minimizing the ratio of energy stored to energy radiated—the Q—of an ESA. By printing directly on the hemispherical substrate, we have a highly versatile single-mode antenna with a Q that very closely approaches the fundamental limit dictated by physics (known as the Chu limit)."

By adjusting the space of the meandering lines and the total antenna cross section, the 3D antenna design can be tuned to a particular operating frequency.

The antenna design could have many applications, as the ink can be printed on a variety of substrates and surfaces -- not just hollow hemispheres.  States Professor Bernhard, "This conformal printing technique can be extended other potential applications, including flexible, implantable, and wearable antennas, electronics, and sensors."

Antennas could potentially be printed on the inside of cell phone cases, inside the cases of laptops, or on the wings of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- offering long desired super-low Q antennas for these applications.

A paper on the work, entitled "Conformal Printing of Electrically Small Antennas on Three-Dimensional Surfaces" [abstract] has been published in the March 18 edition of the peer-reviewed journal of materials.  

If the antenna is everything that is claimed, hopefully mass production of the printing process can be worked out, as the material required -- silver nanoink -- is relatively cheap and available.  If the printing nozzle/equipment can be pushed out at an affordable cost, your smart phone in a couple years could get a 3D antenna and better reception. 

Of course this will only help to eliminate the number of problems on the phone side.  Cell phone networks can have uncovered patches and cell phone towers can be overloaded in cases of high use.  Having a fancy antenna will most definitely not help you with those kinds of problems.

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By vol7ron on 3/17/2011 2:25:26 PM , Rating: 2
The process is interesting. I'm curious how much more expensive it would be to just print on a flat sheet of metal and mold that into a 3D object (punching the underside possibly) - my guess is it would be cheaper and if you used the right amount of ink, there shouldn't be any contiguity issues.

Also curious if this can be applied to more than just phone antennas. Could it also be used for WiFi, and more importantly GPS transceivers?

RE: Interesting
By BioHazardous on 3/17/2011 2:49:23 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not an expert by any means, but wouldn't printing it on metal mess up the antenna?

RE: Interesting
By Hieyeck on 3/17/2011 3:29:23 PM , Rating: 2
Probably, but the concept is sound. Print it on flat plastic, mold said plastic. You'd have to account for stretch, etc. but it could work in theory.

Unfortunatley, because they describe it as 'ink', I don't think it would stretch and you'd have gaps if the plastic was molded.

RE: Interesting
By tastyratz on 3/17/2011 7:11:31 PM , Rating: 2
Depends, if they can deposit the ink in varying thickness then vacuum mold the plastic from below before it is dry it could essentially flow out and still complete the circuit. There are ways...

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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