Electronics may be printed on everyday materials

British Science Festival: ‘Flexible’ electronics could dramatically reduce cost of devices

Visitors at an electronics fair in Germany. Photograph: Paul Zinken/EPA

Visitors at an electronics fair in Germany. Photograph: Paul Zinken/EPA

 

Imagine rolling up your TV screen like a picnic blanket, or changing your living room wallpaper like a screensaver.

Flexible electronics that can be “printed” onto plastic, fabric or paper to turn them into screens or sensors could dramatically reduce the cost of electronic devices in the future, according to researchers at the University of Surrey.

“A flexible, printed electronic surface can be coated onto most materials, like textiles or paper,” Dr Radu Sporea told the British Science Festival.

“Electronics like phones, TVs and appliances are traditionally made in huge factories that require immense investment, which is what makes electronic products expensive, but now electronics can be made by a table-sized printer, so the cost will reduce dramatically in the coming years,” he said.

“There are hardly any products on the market taking advantage of this technology, even though it’s been around for a while. It has the potential to make electronics so much cheaper.”

His research team at Surrey discovered that simple modifications could improve the heat stability of this technology, increasing its possible applications.

Potential applications

“For the moment these technologies are mainly for screens and sensors. But as they’re a fraction of the width of a human hair they have many potential applications as sensors in healthcare, or flat panel lighting,” Dr Sporea said.

“It’s the latest evolution of a very conventional building block of electronics.

“Thin film transistors are made of layers of materials a thousand times the width of a human hair to create a device in which an electric current can be controlled like a tap or a switch.

“The latest development, source-gated transistors, is based on principles of the old-style crystal radios.

“Consumer preference will now decide where this goes, that’s what drives development at the moment.

“It’s no longer about discovering technology; it’s about what people want to do in their lives and finding a way to do that,” Dr Sporea said.