Silicon is the main substrate used for the integrated circuits found in almost all electronic equipment available today. However, silicon could soon be replaced by plastic, film or even fabrics, with Xerox scientists developing a low-temperature silver ink that they say paves the way for the commercialization and low-cost manufacture of printable electronics. This process will offer manufacturers an inexpensive way to add “intelligence” or computing power to a wide range of surfaces to produce things like electronic clothing and cheap games.
Integrated circuits are made up of three components - a semiconductor, a conductor and a dielectric element - and currently are manufactured in costly silicon chip fabricating factories. Printable electronics promises to make the mass production of thin, cheap and flexible electronic circuits a reality, but researchers have been faced with the difficult challenge of developing conductive electronic inks that work in an ordinary, everyday environment. By creating a silver ink to print the conductor, Xerox has developed all three of the materials necessary for printing plastic circuits.
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Using Xerox's new technology, circuits can be printed just like a continuous feed document without the extensive clean room facilities required in current chip manufacturing. In addition, scientists have improved their previously developed semiconductor ink, increasing its reliability by formulating the ink so that the molecules precisely align themselves in the best configuration to conduct electricity.
The printed electronics materials, developed at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, enable product manufacturers to put electronic circuits on plastics, film, and textiles. Printable circuits could be used in a broad range of products, including low-cost radio frequency identification tags, light and flexible e-readers and signage, sensors, "smart" pill boxes that track how much medication a patient has taken, solar cells and wearable electronics.
“We will be able to print circuits in almost any size from smaller custom-sized circuits to larger formats such as wider rolls of plastic sheets -unheard of in today's silicon-wafer industry," said Hadi Mahabadi, vice president and center manager of Xerox Research Centre Canada. "We are taking this technology to product developers to enable them to design tomorrow's uses for printable electronics."
As part of its commercialization initiatives, R&D samples of the new conductive silver ink are available to interested manufacturers and developers by contacting Xerox.