A new Xerox technology could significantly expand applications for three-dimensional electronics components.
The company developed a conductive silver ink that creates a low-cost method to add computing power to plastic and other surfaces. One potential application is a "smart" pill box that tracks how much medication a patient has taken.
There are also significant opportunities in automotive applications where electronics could be embedded into plastic structures, a long-sought technology.
"For years, there's been a global race to find a low-cost way to manufacture plastic circuits," says Paul Smith, laboratory manager, Xerox Research Centre of Canada. "We've found the silver bullet that could make things like electronic clothing and inexpensive games a reality today. This breakthrough means the industry now has the capability to print electronics on a wider range of materials and at a lower cost."
Integrated circuits are made up of three components - a semiconductor, conductor and a dielectric element. The new silver ink from Xerox is said to provide all three of the materials necessary for printing plastic circuits. Molecules precisely align themselves in the best configuration to conduct electricity in the ink formulation.
"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," says 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."
One of the technical breakthroughs was development of a conductive ink with a melting point below that of plastic. The silver ink has a melting point of 140C, compared to 267C for polycarbonate, which is widely used for computer housings. Melting points for commodity plastics, such as polyethylene, are much lower and would not be used with the new inks.
With the Xerox ink, circuits can be printed just like a continuous feed document without the clean room facilities required in current chip manufacturing.