PhD student writing new circuit solutions

Adela Talbot // Western News

Tengyuan Zhang, a PhD student in Mechanical and Material Engineering, recently developed Nectro, a conductive pen that can be used to draw electric circuits quickly and with ease. He is launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund his invention on Aug. 3.

Maybe you remember fumbling with the wires while building a circuit board in a high school science class. If you do, you likely remember it being an arduous and time-consuming task, figuring out what went wrong if the circuit wasn’t working.

Tengyuan Zhang hopes his latest project will not only make this classroom experience more fun for students, but also instil in them the kind of scientific spark he found and continues to enjoy.

Zhang, a PhD student in Mechanical and Material Engineering, recently co-developed Nectro, a conductive pen that can be used to draw electric circuits quickly and with ease. Working with Engineering grad Junming Li and Engineering professor Jun Yang, Zhang developed the pen in Yang’s micro-nano-bio systems lab. The team is launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund this invention on Aug. 4.

Nectro is Canada’s first conductive ink pen, Zhang said, noting he believes it has the potential to be the best conductive ink pen available today.

“There are other similar products in the market, but they are more conceptual. They are not that easy to use, or sometimes you draw the trace, but it’s not always conductive,” he said.

“Their claim is they dry fast, and they do, compared to the first generation of this type of product, which uses a different technology (than we do). But it can take 20 hours to dry; you can’t use it right away,” Zhang continued.

This is why he worked to develop a new type of ink – a new type of pen, actually – in his lab. The pen Zhang developed is comprised of ink he synthesized using a nanotechnology – a process and product awaiting a patent. Nectro’s ink, he said, dries right away.

“The moment you draw the trace on photo paper or our transparent film, it dries immediately. In three seconds, the moment you finish your circuit, you have high conductivity. It’s a water-based ink, not a gel, so it flows uniformly. You don’t need to worry the trace you draw has a crack. It has 100 per cent reliability,” he explained.

But it’s not just the ink that separates Nectro from other conductive pens on the market. Zhang also developed a special eraser to pair with Nectro’s ink.

“The pen is double-tipped; one end is ink, the other is eraser. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to redraw the whole circuit,” he noted.

Nectro’s eraser will work only with Nectro’s ink, he added, noting he believes there are currently no other erasers available for conductive ink.

As for potential users, Zhang hopes to see Nectro take off primarily with younger generations. Professionals stand to benefit from it as well, he said, as it will speed up the process of creating even the most complicated circuit prototypes.

“Children like drawing, and if they can draw, they can make circuits and use (the pen) as a learning opportunity,” Zhang said.

“In high school, this used to be done using a circuit board and you had a circuit diagram. But there are too many wires – if you make a mistake it takes a long time to find a misplaced wire. This is very good for education, for beginners and those designing circuits.”

Propel, Western’s business incubator, is supporting Nectro, and Zhang hopes that after the Kickstarter campaign, the project will take off.

“We hope we can get this money and start to build our mass production line and manufacture this ink in London. I hope this kind of product can go into the market and change people’s lives and excite their interest,” he said.

“I enjoy doing this. I don’t expect to make a lot of money – that’s not my first goal. Doing a start up will cost you energy and time, but it will make you know that much more.”