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.
Organic materials offer new electronic functionality not available in inorganic devices. Promising examples of novel characteristics in organic devices range from the memory effects observed in monolayers and polymer films to negative differential resistance devices. However, the integration of organic compounds within nanoscale electronic circuitry poses considerable challenges for materials physics and chemistry, and a detailed understanding of the conduction mechanisms, switching and memory is still lacking. With increasing research into very different material systems such as oxides, solid-state electrolytes, phase-change memory materials, it is becoming clear that electronic switching on the smallest length scale cannot be purely electronic phenomena. Rather, a motion of heavier constituents has to be involved that will in turn change the electronic properties. New work conducted at Bell Labs demonstrates the success of such a line of thought in molecular systems. The Bell scientists demonstrated a novel approach to creating and chemically modifying conducting electronic states in nanoscale molecular devices.
In the future, wearable electronics will go far beyond just very small electronic devices. Not only will such devices be embedded on textile substrates, but an electronics device or system could become the fabric itself. Electronics textiles will allow the design and production of a new generation of garments with distributed sensors and electronic functions. Such e-textiles will have the revolutionary ability to sense, act, store, emit, and move (think biomedical monitoring functions or new man-machine interfaces) while leveraging an existing low-cost textile manufacturing infrastructure. Reporting a novel approach through the construction of all-organic wire electrochemical transistor devices (WECT) , researchers in Sweden show that textile monofilaments can be coated with continuous thin films of a conducting polymer and used to create microscale WECTs on single fibers. They also demonstrate inverters and multiplexers for digital logic. This opens an avenue for three-dimensional polymer micro-electronics, where large-scale circuits can be designed and integrated directly into the three-dimensional structure of woven fibers.
A few years ago it was discovered that the process of thermal inkjet printing can be applied to fabricate hard tissue scaffolds (such as bones) and, just recently, soft tissue with liquid biomaterials. Research is also underway to use inkjet printing for the fabrication of organic semiconductors, which, because of their low stability, will be targeted at one-time-only applications such as water purity testers. Compared to the research done with respect to organic materials, inkjet printing of inorganic materials for the formation of active devices is relatively rare. To date, only a handful of inorganic materials have been inkjet printed, primarily because of the difficulty in preparing inkjet-printable precursors. Current methods for the production of functional inorganic electronic devices are quite expensive because they require the sequential deposition, patterning, and etching of selected semiconducting, conducting, and insulating materials, involving multiple photolithography and vacuum-deposition processes. Now though, researchers have come up with a process for printable inorganic semiconductors, opening a route to the fabrication of high-performance and ultra low-cost electronics such as transparent electronics and thin film solar cells.