Just a few days ago we ran a Spotlight on nanobionics that addressed some of the issues of bridging the interface between electronics and biology. Today we'll take a look at some leading edge research in the field of neural engineering - an emerging discipline that uses engineering techniques to investigate the function and manipulate the behavior of the central or peripheral nervous systems. Neural engineering is highly interdisciplinary and relies on expertise from computational neuroscience, experimental neuroscience, clinical neurology, electrical engineering and signal processing of living neural tissue, and encompasses elements from robotics, computer engineering, neural tissue engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology. In order for neural prostheses to augment or restore damaged or lost functions of the nervous system they need to be able to perform two main functions: stimulate the nervous system and record its activity. To do that, neural engineers have to gain a full understanding of the fundamental mechanisms and subtleties of cell-to-cell signaling via synaptic transmission, and then develop the technologies to replicate these mechanisms with artificial devices and interface them to the neural system at the cellular level. The first steps toward precise, informative and biocompatible neural interfaces have been made already.
In case you are not old enough to remember the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man during the 1970s, the show was about an astronaut, Steve Austin, who got severely injured during a crash and became a guinea pig for bionics experiments by the CIA. In an operation that cost six million dollars, his right arm, both legs and the left eye are replaced by bionic (cybernetic) implants that vastly enhanced his strength, speed and vision. Never mind Hollywood, though, but bionics - a word formed from biology and electronics - has become a serious research field. In particular the development of artificial muscles is progressing rapidly. Nature's solution to producing fast contracting muscles is to use nanotechnology. The challenge for scientists is to mimic the intricacy of natural muscle in their artificial-muscle systems. As material scientists and engineers delve into the nanodomain, the boundaries between electronics and biology become fuzzy and this is exactly what they want: a seamless transition between the hard world of electronics and the soft world of biology.
Nanoimprinting lithography (NIL) is a simple pattern transfer process that is emerging as an alternative nanopatterning technology to traditional photolithography. NIL allows the fabrication of two-dimensional or three-dimensional structures with submicrometer resolution and the patterning and modification of functional materials. A key benefit of nanoimprint lithography is its sheer simplicity. There is no need for complex optics or high-energy radiation sources with a nanoimprint tool. There is no need for finely tailored photoresists designed for both resolution and sensitivity at a given wavelength. The simplified requirements of the technology allow low-cost, high-throughput production processes of various nanostructures with operational ease. NIL already has been applied in various fields such as biological nanodevices, nanophotonic devices, organic electronics, and the patterning of magnetic materials. Researchers at Berkeley have taken this process one step further by demonstrating that direct nanoimprinting of metal nanoparticles enables low temperature metal deposition as well as high-resolution patterning. This approach has substantial potential to take advantage of nanoimprinting for the application in ultralow cost, large area printed electronics.
Thin, flexible displays have become an everyday component in many electronic gadgets from cell phones to digital cameras and MP3 players. Most of these displays are based on LCD technology, liquid crystals combined with polymeric structures, and one of their drawbacks is that their manufacturing cost grows rapidly with increasing screen size. A recently developed alternative approach for thin, flexible displays makes use of thermochromic composite thin-films. Thermo- chromism is the ability of a substance to change color due to a change in temperature. This first of a kind thermochromic display is based on films with thermochromic nanoparticles and embedded conductive wiring patterns. Based on the ease of fabrication and simple architecture, thermochromic displays could have advantages in lowering the display unit cost and, due to their heating pulse control scheme, can also lower power consumption compared with conventional displays.
Thin-film transistors (TFTs) and associated circuits are of great interest for applications including displays, large-area electronics and printed electronics (e.g. radio-frequency identification tags - RFID). Well-established TFT technologies such as amorphous silicon and poly-silicon are well-suited for many current applications - almost all mobile phone color screens use them - but face challenges in extensions to flexible and transparent applications. In addition, these TFTs have modest carrier mobilities, a measure of the velocity of electrons within the material at a given electric field. The modest mobility corresponds to a modest operating speed for this class of TFTs. Organic TFTs are generally better suited for flexible applications, and can be made transparent. However, mobilities in organic TFTs are generally quite low, restricting the speed of operation and requiring relatively large device sizes. Researchers at Purdue University, Northwestern University, and the University of Southern California now have reported nanowire TFTs that have significantly higher mobilities than other TFT technologies and therefore offer the potential to operate at much higher speeds. Alternatively, they can be fabricated using much smaller device sizes, which allows higher levels of integration within a given chip area. They also provide compatibility with a variety of substrates, as well as the potential for room-temperature processing, which would allow integration of the devices with a number of other technologies (e.g. for displays).
One of the most common methods of film manufacture is Blown Film Extrusion. The process, by which most commodity and specialized plastic films are made for the packaging industry, involves extrusion of a plastic through a circular die, followed by "bubble-like" expansion. The resulting thin tubular film can be used directly, or slit to form a flat film. Nanoscientists now have found a way to use this very common and efficient industrial technology to potentially solve the problem of fabricating large-area nanocomposite films. Currently, the problems with making thin film assemblies are either the production cost of using complex techniques like wet spinning or the unsatisfactory results of unevenly distributed and lumping nanoparticles within the film. The new bubble film technique results in well-aligned and controlled-density nanowire and carbon nanotubes (CNTs) films over large areas. These findings could finally open the door to affordable and reliable large-scale assembly of nanostructures.
One of the newly emerging areas of semiconductor technology is the field of transparent electronics. These thin-film materials hold the promise of a new class of flexible and transparent electronic components that would be more environmentally benign than current electronics. Being able to print transparent circuits on low-cost, flexible, plastic substrates opens up the possibility of a wide range of new applications, ranging from windshield displays and flexible solar cells to clear toys and artificial skins and even sensor implants. It is likely that such flexible see-through structures will find wide uses in military, biosensing and consumer goods due to the advantages of high transparency and reliable electrical characteristics. However, the emerging transparent electronics technology is facing manufacturing problems: current fabricating processes do not separate the device manufacturing from material synthesis. The transparent electronic materials, which are largely inorganic oxides. are directly deposited on the device substrate under harsh conditions which may cause damage to the existing layer or flexible substrate. The etching of small dimension oxide multilayer is also difficult due to the low selectivity of the etching recipe. New research results demonstrate that nanofabrication techniques could solve these problems.
The fabrication of electronic devices on plastic substrates has attracted considerable recent attention owing to the proliferation of handheld, portable consumer electronics. Plastic substrates possess many attractive properties including biocompatibility, flexibility, light weight, shock resistance, softness and transparency. Achieving high performance electronics or sensors on plastic substrates is difficult, because plastics melt at temperatures above 120 degrees C. Central to continued advances in high-performance plastic electronics is the development of robust methods for overcoming this temperature restriction. Unfortunately, high quality semiconductors (such as silicon) require high growth temperatures, so their application to flexible plastics is prohibited. A group of researchers at the California Institute of Technology now showed that highly ordered films of silicon nanowires can be literally glued onto pieces of plastic to make flexible sensors with state-of-the-art sensitivity to a range of toxic chemicals. These nanowires are crystalline wires made out of doped silicon - the mainstay of the computer industry. By etching nanowires into a wafer of silicon, and then peeling them off and transferring them to plastic, they developed a general, parallel, and scalable strategy for achieving high performance electronics on low cost plastic substrates.