Tag Archives: foldable electronics

A fatigue-free stretchable conductor for foldable electronics

There’s been a lot of talk about foldable, stretchable, and/or bendable electronics, which is exciting in itself but I find this work on developing a fatigue-free conductor particularly intriguing. After all, who hasn’t purchased something that stretches, folds, etc. only to find that it becomes ‘fatigued’ and is now ‘stretched out’.

A Sept. 23, 2015 news item on Azonano describes the new conductors,

Researchers have discovered a new stretchable, transparent conductor that can be folded or stretched and released, resulting in a large curvature or a significant strain, at least 10,000 times without showing signs of fatigue.

This is a crucial step in creating a new generation of foldable electronics – think a flat-screen television that can be rolled up for easy portability – and implantable medical devices. The work, published Monday [Sept. 21, 2015] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pairs gold nanomesh with a stretchable substrate made with polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS.

The research is the result of an international collaboration including the University of Houston (US), Harvard University (US), Methodist Research Institute (US), Zhengzhou University (China), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL; US).

A Sept. 22, 2015 University of Houston news release by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, describes this -fatigue-free material in more detail,

The substrate is stretched before the gold nanomesh is placed on it – a process known as “prestretching” – and the material showed no sign of fatigue when cyclically stretched to a strain of more than 50 percent.

The gold nanomesh also proved conducive to cell growth, indicating it is a good material for implantable medical devices.

Fatigue is a common problem for researchers trying to develop a flexible, transparent conductor, making many materials that have good electrical conductivity, flexibility and transparency – all three are needed for foldable electronics – wear out too quickly to be practical, said Zhifeng Ren, a physicist at the University of Houston and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, who was the lead author for the paper.

The new material, produced by grain boundary lithography, solves that problem, he said.

In addition to Ren, other researchers on the project included Chuan Fei Guo and Ching-Wu “Paul” Chu, both from UH; Zhigang Suo, Qihan Liu and Yecheng Wang, all from Harvard University, and Guohui Wang and Zhengzheng Shi, both from the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

In materials science, “fatigue” is used to describe the structural damage to a material caused by repeated movement or pressure, known as “strain cycling.” Bend a material enough times, and it becomes damaged or breaks.    That means the materials aren’t durable enough for consumer electronics or biomedical devices.

“Metallic materials often exhibit high cycle fatigue, and fatigue has been a deadly disease for metals,” the researchers wrote.

“We weaken the constraint of the substrate by making the interface between the Au (gold) nanomesh and PDMS slippery, and expect the Au nanomesh to achieve superstretchability and high fatigue resistance,” they wrote in the paper. “Free of fatigue here means that both the structure and the resistance do not change or have little change after many strain cycles.”

As a result, they reported, “the Au nanomesh does not exhibit strain fatigue when it is stretched to 50 percent for 10,000 cycles.”

Many applications require a less dramatic stretch – and many materials break with far less stretching – so the combination of a sufficiently large range for stretching and the ability to avoid fatigue over thousands of cycles indicates a material that would remain productive over a long period of time, Ren said.

The grain boundary lithography involved a bilayer lift-off metallization process, which included an indium oxide mask layer and a silicon oxide sacrificial layer and offers good control over the dimensions of the mesh structure.

The researchers used mouse embryonic fibroblast cells to determine biocompatibility; that, along with the fact that the stretchability of gold nanomesh on a slippery substrate resembles the bioenvironment of tissue or organ surfaces, suggest the nanomesh “might be implanted in the body as a pacemaker electrode, a connection to nerve endings or the central nervous system, a beating heart, and so on,” they wrote.

Here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

Fatigue-free, superstretchable, transparent, and biocompatible metal electrodes by Chuan Fei Guo, Qihan Liu, Guohui Wang, Yecheng Wang, Zhengzheng Shi, Zhigang Suo, Ching-Wu Chu, and Zhifeng Ren. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516873112 Published online Sept. 21, 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

University of Vermont and the ‘excitons’ of an electron superhighway

This story starts off with one of the current crazes, folding and bendable electronics, before heading off onto the ‘electron highway’. From a Sept. 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

TV screens that roll up. Roofing tiles that double as solar panels. Sun-powered cell phone chargers woven into the fabric of backpacks. A new generation of organic semiconductors may allow these kinds of flexible electronics to be manufactured at low cost, says University of Vermont physicist and materials scientist Madalina Furis.

But the basic science of how to get electrons to move quickly and easily in these organic materials remains murky.

To help, Furis and a team of UVM materials scientists have invented a new way to create what they are calling “an electron superhighway” in one of these materials — a low-cost blue dye called phthalocyanine — that promises to allow electrons to flow faster and farther in organic semiconductors.

A Sept. 14, 2015 University of Vermont news release (also on EurekAlert) by Joshua E. Brown, which originated the news item, describes the problem the researches were trying to solve and the solution they found,

Hills and potholes

Many of these types of flexible electronic devices will rely on thin films of organic materials that catch sunlight and convert the light into electric current using excited states in the material called “excitons.” Roughly speaking, an exciton is a displaced electron bound together with the hole it left behind. Increasing the distance these excitons can diffuse — before they reach a juncture where they’re broken apart to produce electrical current — is essential to improving the efficiency of organic semiconductors.

Using a new imaging technique, the UVM team was able to observe nanoscale defects and boundaries in the crystal grains in the thin films of phthalocyanine — roadblocks in the electron highway. “We have discovered that we have hills that electrons have to go over and potholes that they need to avoid,” Furis explains.

To find these defects, the UVM team — with support from the National Science Foundation — built a scanning laser microscope, “as big as a table” Furis says. The instrument combines a specialized form of linearly polarized light and photoluminescence to optically probe the molecular structure of the phthalocyanine crystals.

“Marrying these two techniques together is new; it’s never been reported anywhere,” says Lane Manning ’08 a doctoral student in Furis’ lab and co-author on the new study.

The new technique allows the scientists a deeper understanding of how the arrangement of molecules and the boundaries in the crystals influence the movement of excitons. It’s these boundaries that form a “barrier for exciton diffusion,” the team writes.

And then, with this enhanced view, “this energy barrier can be entirely eliminated,” the team writes. The trick: very carefully controlling how the thin films are deposited. Using a novel “pen-writing” technique with a hollow capillary, the team worked in the lab of UVM physics and materials science professor Randy Headrick to successfully form films with jumbo-sized crystal grains and “small angle boundaries.” Think of these as easy-on ramps onto a highway — instead of an awkward stop sign at the top of a hill — that allow excitons to move far and fast.

Better solar cells

Though the Nature Communications study focused on just one organic material, phthalocyanine, the new research provides a powerful way to explore many other types of organic materials, too — with particular promise for improved solar cells. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report identified one of the fundamental bottlenecks to improved solar power technologies as “determining the mechanisms by which the absorbed energy (exciton) migrates through the system prior to splitting into charges that are converted to electricity.”

The new UVM study — led by two of Furis’ students, Zhenwen Pan G’12, and Naveen Rawat G’15 — opens a window to view how increasing “long-range order” in the organic semiconductor films is a key mechanism that allows excitons to migrate farther. “The molecules are stacked like dishes in a dish rack,” Furis explains, “these stacked molecules — this dish rack — is the electron superhighway.”

Though excitons are neutrally charged — and can’t be pushed by voltage like the electrons flowing in a light bulb — they can, in a sense, bounce from one of these tightly stacked molecules to the next. This allows organic thin films to carry energy along this molecular highway with relative ease, though no net electrical charge is transported.

“One of today’s big challenges is how to make better photovoltaics and solar technologies,” says Furis, who directs UVM’s program in materials science, “and to do that we need a deeper understanding of exciton diffusion. That’s what this research is about.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polarization-resolved spectroscopy imaging of grain boundaries and optical excitations in crystalline organic thin films by Z. Pan, N. Rawat, I. Cour, L. Manning, R. L. Headrick, & M. Furis. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8201 doi:10.1038/ncomms9201 Published 14 September 2015

This is an open access article.

Foldable glass (well, there’s some plastic too)

Michael Berger has written a fascinating Aug. 11, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article on folding glass,

Have you ever heard about foldable glass?


Glass is notorious for its brittleness. Although industry has developed ultra-thin (∼0.1 mm), flexible glass (like Corning’s Willow® Glass) that can be bent for applications liked curved TV and smartphone displays, fully foldable glass had not been demonstrated. Until now.

Khang [Dahl-Young Khang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Yonsei University] and his group have now demonstrated substrate platforms of glass and plastics, which can be reversibly and repeatedly foldable at pre designed location(s) without any mechanical failure or deterioration in device performances.

“We have engineered the substrates to have thinned parts on which the folding deformation should occur,” Moon Jong Han, first author of the paper a graduate student in Khang’s lab, says. “This localizes the deformation strain on those thinned parts only.”

He adds that this approach to engineering substrates has another advantage regarding device materials: “There is no need to adopt any novel materials such as nanowires, carbon nanotubes, graphene, etc. Rather, all the conventional materials that have been used for high-performance devices can be directly applied on our engineered substrates.”

Intriguingly, even ITO (indium tin oxide), a very brittle transparent conducting oxide, can be used as electrode on this novel foldable glass platform.

What makes the approach especially intriguing is the ability to reverse the fold and that it doesn’t require special nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, etc. From Berger’s Aug. 11, 2015 article,

The width of the thinned parts, the gap width, plays the key role in implementing dual foldability. The other key element is the asymmetric design of the gap width for the second folding.

The researchers achieved foldability, in part, by copying a technique used for folding mats and oriental hinge-less screens which have thinned areas to allow folding.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Glass and Plastics Platforms for Foldable Electronics and Displays by Moon Jung Han and Dahl-Young Khang. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201501060 First published: 21 July 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Berger’s article is not only fascinating, it is also illustrated with some images provided by the researchers.

Crowdfunding Qii, a foldable, soft keyboard made of a carbon nanotube/fullerene hybrid

Canatu Ltd. is a Finnish company that’s trying to crowdfund its foldable, soft keyboard, Qii, on indiegogo. Here’s more about Canatu’s keyboard project from the Nov. 24, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

Canatu Ltd., a developer of a new class of versatile carbon nanomaterial based custom films and sensors for flexible and formable touch devices, is launching Qii – the world’s first, truly mobile, rollable touch accessory.

The company appears to be creating a new class of product under the Qii brand name. From the indiegogo campaign description,

With Qii, your smartphone and your imagination, any surface can be effectively turned into a touch surface and any “dumb” object can be turned into a “smart” object. Nanotechnology and organic electronics make it possible. The idea is simple, but the applications are endless.

As our first Qii product, we’re offering a full QWERTY computer keyboard, including a number pad and function keys, wirelessly connected to your smartphone. Because its ultra thin and flexible, Qii is both full sized and pocket sized, so you’ll be able to effortlessly type and surf anywhere you go, be it in a café, the woods, or a car, train, bus or plane. It has an anti fingerprint coating to keep it clean and a textured surface for easy touch typing. It’s dirt and water resistant, so you don’t have to worry about spilling and it’s easily washable with soap and water. And, since Qii’s rollable electronics are printed, it’s tough.

Qii’s case is also a touchpad, allowing you to point, tap and scroll for easy surfing and graphical editing. You can use Qii on most any surface, so you can check your email on your friend’s belly, update your Facebook on your pet, or write your next novel on your pillow.

Some keyboards claim to be rollable, but you can’t roll them up and fit them in your pocket. We use a new kind of flexible transparent electronic film together with a new kind of touch sensing technology that can sense both position and force to create a compact and portable and programmable touch surface.

Qii will work with iPhone, iPod, iPad, Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone, and Palm phones according to each platform’s available QWERTY keyboard and pointer standards.

Intriguing, non? You might want to watch this video for a demonstration,

There is a very brief description of the technology in the campaign material,

Our team has been working for years with our partners to bring Qii to life. Together we have developed new carbon based nanomaterials, new dry printing manufacturing techniques and now new, ultra-high transparency, flexible, bendable, stretchable, rollable and foldable touch technologies and unique touch algorithms to make Qii possible. It starts with our flexible, transparent, electrically conductive film made with a new carbon nanomaterial connected to state-of-the art sensing electronics to make a flexible, transparent touch sensing surface that determines both your finger’s position and force.

We’ll introduce the Qii in pliable hard coated plastic, but, in the future, the sensor can be printed on most anything, even paper, rubber or fabric.

I took a look at the Canatu website and found this information about a material they’ve developed and named, NanoBuds® and which I believe forms the basis for the company’s proposed Qii keyboard,

Canatu has developed a new material, the Carbon NanoBud®, which is a hybrid of Carbon Nanotubes and fullerenes. The hybridization is achieved directly in the material synthesis process and the resulting material combines the best features of both fullerenes and nanotubes.

Canatu’s first products focus on taking advantage of the high conductivity, high aspect ratio, low work function, chemical stability and mechanical flexibility of NanoBuds® to make the world’s highest performance carbon based transparent conductive film for transparent conductors in touch, haptics, displays and photovoltaics. These films, consisting of randomly oriented deposits of NanoBuds on polymer or glass substrates, are flexible, bendable, stretchable and have excellent transparency conductivity performance as shown below. [emphasis mine]

David Brown, the company’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO) originally announced the crowdfunding Qii campaign would take place on Kickstarter in Dan Rogers’s Oct. 10, 2012 article for Plastic Electronics,

An accessory using a novel nanomaterial touchscreen will be launched via the Kickstarter project in the coming weeks, according to nanotechnology developer Canatu.

Based in Finland, Canatu supplies carbon NanoBuds that can be used as a conductive layer alternative to indium tin oxide, which is considered too brittle for flexible electronics.

I’m not sure what happened with the ‘Kickstarter’ plans but the indiegogo campaign has 41 days left as Canatu tries to raise $1,850,000 by Jan. 6, 2013. The company must raise the entire amount requested or it receives nothing.

Good luck to the folks at Canatu. Qii looks like a product which would make moving around much easier. Imagine not having to lug your laptop or tablet around while enjoying the benefits of a full size keyboard.