Disruptive but creative technologies

Printed electronics and nanotechnologies are transformational processes

By Morand Fachot

Printed electronics and nanotechnologies are set to revolutionize the electronics industry and many other domains. These disruptive, yet creative processes are expected to become two of the key technologies of the 21st century. They will provide opportunities for the development and production of new, smaller and low-cost electronic devices and other product

Printed electronics processes allow the production of flexible electronic circuits Printed electronics processes allow the production of flexible electronic circuits

The new printing revolution

Printing is no longer just about reproducing text and images with ink on paper or another support. 3D printing, rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, as it is often called, has seen the creation of various objects by adding successive layers of materials to create a product.

PE (printed electronics) is another form of 3D-related printing. It consists in the creation of electronic devices and components using various printing methods, equipment and material.

This technology makes it possible to produce a wide variety of products that can be used in countless applications. It has other advantages, such as much lower production costs than for conventional electronics and it can be applied to flexible or rigid supports (or substrates).

Wide range of materials

PE transforms the way electronic devices are made and employed. Using materials (inks and substrates) that have conducting, semiconducting, non-conducting, electroluminescent, PV or other properties, and different printing methods (e.g. lithography, inkjet, or screen printing,) allow great design flexibility and possibilities.

Both inorganic and organic materials are used for printed electronics. Organic materials can be found in products such as OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) displays used in televisions sets, computer monitors or mobile phones, and OPVC (organic PV cells).

Innovative materials such as carbon nanotubes allow new or enhanced applications for batteries, new types of solar cells, ultracapacitors and electrical circuits.

Engineers throughout the world use printed electronics to design a variety of components and products, such as TFT (thin film transistor), flexible displays that can be unfolded to make up a large television, PV (photovoltaic) cells that fit windows or the roofs of cars or innovative and energy-efficient lighting solutions.

In the short- and medium term, hybrid systems – combining printed, flexible electronics with building blocks containing classical (silicon) electronics will be introduced.

Multiple applications

PE are already widely used in RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on product packaging to protect against shoplifting and to identify items during transport. They are also used in the production of flexible electronic circuits which are widespread in products where space constraints are significant, such as in small consumer electronics devices (i.e. digital cameras, mobile phones).

Technologies are being developed that make it possible to print electronic components, such as sensors, transistors, light-emitters, smart tags and labels, flexible batteries to power flexible and printed electronics, memory, etc.

New printed electronics applications are emerging, opening up possibilities not envisaged before.

From research to industrial design and to marketable products

Printed electronics are being found in more and more mass-produced items, in particular in the automotive, consumer electronics and pharmaceutical industries, as well as in packaging where smart labels can provide item-level tracking of quality data for goods such as pharmaceuticals and perishable food.

The printed electronics industry currently covers 5 main areas:

  • Lighting, including both OLED and electroluminescent products)
  • Organic PV
  • Flexible displays
  • Electronics and components, including RFID, memories, batteries and other components
  • ISS (integrated smart systems) that include smart objects, sensors like MEMS (micro electro mechanical system) and smart textiles.

IEC contribution

The 5 areas that see widespread use of printed electronics are already covered by several IEC TCs (Technical Committees). However, printed electronics industry experts stressed, at their regular trade meetings and events, a need for standardization in a number of PE-specific areas. These include terminology, materials, processes, equipments, products as well as health, safety and environment issues. As a result of this need the IEC SMB (Standardization Management Board) decided to create TC 119 to prepare standardization work in the field of printed electronics. TC 119 was established in October 2011. It has 11 participating members and 7 observer members. Given the rapid growth of the PE industry in recent years and its prospects in the future the obvious need for PE standardization points to a very dynamic future for TC 119.

Very small but global

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on atomic and molecular scales, is expected to be another key technology of the 21st century, providing opportunities for the development of new products that are covered by many IEC TC/SCs. Its rapid growth requires International Standards for its move into an industrial phase. IEC TC 113: Nanotechnology standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, was established in 2006 to prepare Standards that address materials as well as so-called gratings, which are objects used in nanotechnology.

Defining the infinitely small

Nanotechnology covers objects at a nanoscale, which is defined as ranging from 1-100 nm (nanometre). A nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre (or 10-9 m). Standardization in nanotechnology starts at the features and gratings levels.

Features are, in general, three-dimensional objects. They can also be nano-objects and have different shapes, such as a dot, a line, a groove, etc. They might be symmetric or non–symmetric and can be located on the surface of, or within, the substrate (“buried feature”).

Gratings are periodically-spaced collection of identical features.

Challenging work

Measuring and obtaining accurate parameters at such minute scales is extremely difficult and challenging. It requires a precise definition of measurement and assessment specifications and procedures.

To achieve this and also allow the production of components and systems, TC 113 published a number of Standards, Technical Reports and Specifications that cover nanomanufacturing and test methods.

The TC's work thus paves the way for the industry to manufacture nano-enabled systems and goods that will emerge soon in areas including energy production, efficiency and storage; electric vehicles; next generation consumer electronics; lighting and other products, so sustaining industries expected to generate some USD 2 500 billion in 2

Printed electronics processes allow the production of flexible electronic circuits Printed electronics processes allow the production of flexible electronic circuits
Printed photovoltaic panel (Photo: Solamet) Printed photovoltaic panel (Photo: Solamet)
Self-powered nanosensors developed by Georgia Tech (Photo: Gary Meek) Self-powered nanosensors developed by Georgia Tech (Photo: Gary Meek)