Before we dive into printable electronics, let’s do a quick history lesson. Vacuum tubes were invented in 1904. The transistor was invented in 1947. And while it seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a major breakthrough, the next massive jump in electronics technology was made very recently and with little fanfare: it is the development of polymer-based functional electronic materials. These are, for all intents and purposes, printable circuits made from plastic materials that have the functionality and performance of metallic/ceramic semiconductor materials.
UNDERSTANDING PRINTABLE ELECTRONICS
How does the technology work? First, it is helpful to understand that there are two building blocks that make up all types of semiconductors, “n” and “p” type materials. By layering or putting the “n” and “p” (or “n-p”) in contact with each other, you make a diode which is a one-way valve. Then by triple stacking the materials, an “n-p-n” or “p-n-p” configuration, you have the basic design of a transistor or a functional switch. All traditional digital circuitry, from vacuum tubes to modern Intel chips are based on these models.
So what makes it “printable”? Imagine that your desktop inkjet printer has, in-place of a typical color ink cartridges (black, magenta, cyan, etc.), a series of functional cartridges: a conductive ink cartridge, an insulating ink cartridge, an “n” type ink and a “p” type ink cartridge. The printer makes multiple passes on a piece of paper or plastic layering any of the four “inks” down and building up a working digital circuit in the process.
As mentioned, when the “n” layer makes contact with the “p” layer you have a functioning digital component. The conductive ink fleshes out the connections and the insulated ink keeps the circuit from shorting out. This is similar to 3-D printing, but in this case, the ink layers have limited thickness compared with 3-D printing and is thus considered a 2-D process.
The components possible with this method are photovoltaic cells, memory, central processing unit (CPU), capacitive contact switches, displays, and radio frequency (RF) identification. So any basic electronic/digital circuit becomes very inexpensive to produce with this printable method.
Until this process was developed, digital electronic circuits required a silicon-based semiconductor that came from a small-output facility that cost millions of dollars to produce for just the first microchip. This was a huge and prohibitive investment that has concentrated manufacturing in the hands of a few large players that are located mostly in Asia. In contrast, early commercial printable electronics systems cost about $30,000. This is several orders of magnitude less expensive than traditional electronic fabrication process and could be disruptive in some low end applications.
To be clear, without significant development and breakthroughs, printable electronics will probably not ever disrupt high-performance microchips like the one in your newest-generation Android phone. Instead, this process is poised to disrupt where the applications have lower performance requirements.
An example of a potential low-end application for printable technology is a smart card you can print up at home to then use to access public transportation. The design plans and printing instructions for this card could be downloaded from the bus company. They have a fleet of busses with sensors that seamlessly read your newly printed smart card. The paper-thin smart card sits comfortably in your wallet and communicates through near-field protocols to talk to your phone and the bus and then tell you things such as your remaining balance and even basic route information.
PRINTABLE ELECTRONICS POSSIBILITIES
As stated earlier, printable electronics do not have the performance of their silicon-based microchip cousins, but they will have a huge advantage in price point and “just in time” hyperlocal manufacture. In the same way that 3-D printing will create new markets and new opportunities for entrepreneurs, 2-D printable electronics may complement 3-D printing and augment the capabilities of 3-D printing.
Printable Electronics Part 2: Business Opportunities and Markets will explore the markets and business opportunities for Connecticut entrepreneurs related to printable electronics.
About Dave Fazzina
I have spent the past 20 years as a materials engineer, an entrepreneur, a consultant and a part-time mad scientist.
I will discuss a bit of physics, chemistry technology and even some bio science as I explore the innovations that will be tomorrow’s hot new startups. I hope that the topics and discussions will inspire entrepreneurs to take chances and think big. Connecticut is home to some of the greatest inventors. While Nutmeggers are familiar with Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney, we shouldn’t forget that Danbury was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley.