Jan 3, 2015 | By Simon

With today's printed plastic electronics performing nearly just as well as what was considered state-of-the-art forty years ago, it comes with little surprise that advancements are still growing at an exponential level... particularly in higher quality and lower cost fabrication methods.

Simply put, plastic costs less to build than silicon (primarily due to the omission of vacuums and high temperature needs of silicon), and the fabrication of plastic circuit boards involve little more than simple inkjetting and processing with low-cost liquids.

With these facts in mind, the conversation then turns into how advancements in 3D printing can not only drive the costs further down and create even more powerful device, but also, when? The largest hurdle has primarily been in duplicating the micron-level features seen in today's integrated circuits.

(An processor made from organic transistors deposited on a plastic foil.)

More recently, an IBM Research lab in Zurich, Switzerland developed a device by reconfiguring an atomic force microscope so that it was capable of creating 3D patterns with a nanometer-scale resolution in organic material. Among other uses for the material is as a mask for creating circuits.

To create their device, the team added a heater on the tip of an AFM probe and used it to desorb material from a thin film of organic molecular glass or polyphthalamide polymer (PPA). When heated, both materials evaporate and thus, leave no residue behind. When done in more complex patterns, the material can serve as a mask for producing circuits with stereolithography fabrication methods. The additional necessary materials for creating the electronics are then applied to the board via the pattern on the mask.

(To create a pattern, voltages V and Vf control the temperature and the electrostatic force applied.. When no voltage is applied, the tip rests about 300 nm above the surface. Material is removed when the probe sees a force and temperature pulse lasting several microseconds.)

Since developing this fabrication method, IBM has licensed the device to SwissLitho AG, a startup that is developing several enhancements for the technology. Their version of the device, the NanoFrazor, has been able to outperform conventional electron-beam lithography equipment used in the semiconductor manufacturing process and costs just $500,000 compared to up to $30 million for silicon manufacturing equipment. The enhancements that SwissLatho AG are currently working on involve faster speeds for creating the patterns and models that are able to make patterns out of a wider variety of materials.

"Plastic circuits could end up having perhaps 1/1,000th the cost-per-area of the equivalent silicon device," said Dr. Janusz Bryzek, founder of the Trillion Sensor movement.

If Bryzek's theory is correct, then the potential for being able to cheaply fabricate plastic boards for wearable electronics and other small connected devices isn't too far off of the horizon. If the printed plastic electronics truly do make an impact, it will likely eliminate large semiconductor companies due to smaller workshops, firms and even larger companies being able to literally 3D print their own circuit boards...so long as they have the equipment. As the cost of additive manufacturing methods continue to go down, that future might not be too far off.


Posted in 3D Printing Technology


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Anja wrote at 1/4/2015 11:11:14 AM:

@Swissboy @Jon S: Thanks.

SwissBoy wrote at 1/4/2015 10:56:55 AM:

There is a small error in the text: Zurich is in Switzerland, not in Germany. Apart from that, this seems to be a very interesting development in the electronics industry. Probably not for making complete processors or memory devices flexible, but maybe for some sensors, simple microcontrollers and custom made ASIC.

Jon S wrote at 1/3/2015 6:47:08 PM:

It's silicon, not silicone. Silicon is the hard element used to make integrated circuits. Silicone is a soft polymer gel.

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