The commercial history of flexible polymeric electronics has been mixed, but research is underway indicating significant potential for the technology in the not-too-distant future.
Two of the pioneers in flexible electronics—Konarka and Plextronics—filed for bankruptcy protection in the past three years. Solvay absorbed the assets of Plextronics, while Konarka simply disappeared. Their technologies were very interesting, but not ready for prime time.
Twenty-six papers will address the topic of printed electronics at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, which will be held in Boston Aug. 16-20. The emphasis seems to have shifted from solar power to wearable devices, and in some cases 3D printing is an important component of the research.
In one paper, Benjamin Leever of the Soft Matter Materials Branch, Air Force Research Laboratory, will discuss how the Air Force is using 3D printing to create Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE). Potential applications include electronics and sensors for monitoring airman health/performance; conformal electronics and antennas for maximizing space efficiency and reducing aerodynamic drag; and inherently more durable circuits that will withstand the extreme strain, shock, and vibration environments typical of Air Force missions.
“Related to these goals, we are developing approaches to inject and print gallium-based liquid metal alloys into varied materials for stretchable and reconfigurable electronics,” states the abstract for the presentation. Plastics being studied include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and composites. Leever leads a team in Dayton, Ohio, targeting development of additive manufacturing of electronics and optics for Air Force applications.
In another session, Prof. Jennifer Lewis is scheduled to discuss how Harvard has developed “a multimaterial 3D printing platform that enables the rapid design and fabrication of soft functional devices in arbitrary shapes without the need for expensive tooling, dies, or lithographic masks.” The goal is to create flexible electronics and sensors for applications ranging from wearable devices to intelligent biochips.
In another development, the University of Massachusetts Lowell has established a Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC).
The initial focus of the collaborative will be support of the state’s defense cluster in printed electronics, but long-term, flexible electronics are expected to also have a broad range of applications in fields including health care, telecommunications and renewable energy.