Work pushing wave of printable electronics

Paul Mayne // Western NewsMechanical and Materials Engineering PhD student Tengyuan Zhang shows off a battery-free self-powered LED light array, fabricated here at Western.

Western researcher Jun Yang is looking to push the ‘paper’ envelope when it comes to printable electronics, a rapidly growing area of research that could soon revolutionize the electronics industry.

Producing paper-based electronics – flexible, stretchable, lightweight and wearable devices – is challenging in many ways, said the Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor.

“Traditionally, most electronics are made out of silicon, building it layer by layer, but it also generates a lot of waste,” Yang said. “Like an inkjet printer, instead of graphics and text, we print a functional material and build a circuit board.”

While research into printed technology has been ongoing for more than a decade, Yang’s approach will hopefully alleviate the problems many others have been encountering, particularly regarding the conductive links absorbing into the paper, making it impossible to form a highly conductive layer.

To address this, Yang and his team are working towards what he calls preparing the paper for ‘seed,’ or a type of catalyst, to activate the growth of copper on the paper, making it highly conductive and, he added, almost 10 times better than what is currently available on the market for printed technology.

“Printed electronics have been popular in research for more than 10 years, but we seldom see printed electronics products on the market. Why? Because it still costs many times higher than printing a bar code, but shows much lower performance than regular electronics,” said Yang, whose work was recently published in the journal Advanced Sustainable Systems.

Engineering PhD student Tengyuan Zhang, who is leading the printed electronics project, said he is intrigued with Yang’s research for its potential to change people’s lives.

“Wearable electronics can be part of your jacket or coat that could be used to monitor your heart rate, for example,” said Zhang, adding people likely don’t want to spend $250 for a shirt with this technology. “We want to be able to keep the performance and lower the costs at the same time, to make it affordable to everyone. We want it to blend into their lives seamlessly for them to enjoy.”

Through Micro-Nano-Bio Systems Lab, founded by Yang, he now offering free prototyping service of high-performance flexible printed circuits on three substances: paper, polyethylene terephthalate (used in fibers for clothing) and polyimide.

“We want to connect not just our phones or computers, but everything, including ourselves,” Yang said. “Companies are always looking for low cost manufacturing ways to produce electronics, so we decided to provide the prototyping service for free. We want to keep pushing the technology one step further to reality.”