Xerox scientists create ‘silver bullet’ to replace silicon?

28 Oct 2009

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While chip makers strive to keep up with Moore’s Law, the entire computer industry agrees that chips may soon surpass this venerable edict and for years materials from synthetic diamonds and glass have been suggested as replacements for silicon.

The boffins at Xerox, it seems, have come up with the silver bullet to replace silicon circuits with low-cost durable plastic.

With the development of a new silver ink, Xerox scientists have paved the way for commercialisation and low-cost manufacturing of printable electronics.

Variety at low cost

Printable electronics offers manufacturers a low-cost way to add “intelligence” or computing power to a wide range of surfaces, such as plastic or fabric. This development will aid the commercialisation of new applications such as “smart” pill boxes that track how much medication a patient has taken or display screens that roll up to fit into a briefcase.

“For years, there’s been a global race to find a low-cost way to manufacture plastic circuits,” said Paul Smith, laboratory manager, Xerox Research Centre of Canada.

“We’ve found the silver bullet that could make things like electronic clothing and inexpensive games a reality today. This breakthrough means the industry now has the capability to print electronics on a wider range of materials and at a lower cost.”

Hindrances

Until now, bringing low-cost electronics to the masses has been hindered by the logistics and costs associated with silicon-chip manufacturing; the breakthrough low-temperature silver ink overcomes the cost hurdle, printing reliably on a wide range of surfaces such as plastic or fabric.

As part of its commercialisation initiatives, Xerox plans to aggressively seek interested manufacturers and developers by providing sample materials to allow them to test and evaluate potential applications.

Integrated circuits are made up of three components – a semiconductor, a conductor and a dielectric element – and currently are manufactured in costly silicon-chip fabricating factories.  By creating a breakthrough silver ink to print the conductor, Xerox has developed all three of the materials necessary for printing plastic circuits.

Ink think

Using Xerox’s new technology, circuits can be printed just like a continuous feed document without the extensive clean-room facilities required in current chip manufacturing. In addition, scientists have improved their previously developed semiconductor ink, increasing its reliability by formulating the ink so the molecules precisely align themselves in the best configuration to conduct electricity.

The printed electronics materials, developed at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada, enable product manufacturers to put electronic circuits on plastics, film and textiles.

Printable circuits could be used in a broad range of products, including low-cost radio frequency identification tags, light and flexible e-readers and signage, sensors, solar cells and novelty applications, including wearable electronics.

“We will be able to print circuits in almost any size, from smaller custom-sized circuits to larger formats, such as wider rolls of plastic sheets – unheard of in today’s silicon-wafer industry,” said Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and centre manager of Xerox Research Centre Canada.

“We are taking this technology to product developers to enable them to design tomorrow’s uses for printable electronics.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Xerox silver ink.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com