A Stretchable Electronics Breakthrough Thanks to Carbon Nanotubes

Researchers at the University of Houston have improved the design of stretchable electronics to get them out of the lab and into the commercial market.
Researchers from the University of Houston have reported significant advances in stretchable electronics, moving the field closer to commercialization. (Image source: University of Houston)

Stretchable electronics are believed to be the future of devices from wearables to smartphones. However, research at this time is mainly limited to the lab as scientists put together the various materials and components to make these devices commercially possible.

A team at the University of Houston (UH) believes it’s helping push these devices closer to commercialization by connecting the dots in two particular areas of research—carrier mobility and integrated electronics.  The work—published in a paper in Science Advances—paves the way for key advances in smart devices such as robotic skins, implantable bioelectronics, and human-machine interfaces by implementing aspects of improved carrier mobility and integrated electronics, according to the researchers.

Researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UH, outlined how to develop stretchable semiconductors—including rubbery integrated electronics, logic circuits, and arrayed sensory skins—fully based on rubber materials.

Carrier Mobility is Critical

Indeed, low carrier mobility—as well as complex fabrication requirements—has hindered the development of previous stretchable semiconductors. Carrier mobility is the speed at which electrons can move through a material. This is critical to the successful functionality of an electronic device because it governs the ability of the semiconductor transistors to amplify the current, researchers said.

University of Houston researchers achieved their breakthrough to remedy these issues by discovering that adding tiny amounts of metallic carbon nanotubes to the rubbery semiconductor of P3HT, or polydimethylsiloxane composite, can lead to improved carrier mobility.

“We report fully rubbery integrated electronics from a rubbery semiconductor with a high effective mobility … obtained by introducing metallic carbon nanotubes into a rubbery semiconductor with organic semiconductor nanofibrils percolated,” researchers, including Yu, wrote in the Science Advances paper. “This enhancement in carrier mobility is enabled by providing fast paths and, therefore, a shortened carrier transport distance.”

Specifically, the combination of materials provides “a highway” to speed up the carrier transport across the semiconductor, Yu explained. The UH researchers plan to continue their work to further raise carrier mobility, he said. They also have the development of stretchable integrated circuits and biomedical applications, among others, in their sites with a plan to build building more complex, hierarchy, and high-level integrated digital circuits, Yu added.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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