Our future electronics could be printed like newspaper sheets

Electronics can be printed with nanoscale accuracy by using a technique inspired by newspaper stamps.

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Researchers have developed a new technique which may one day be used to print our electronics in the same way as newspapers.

Scientists from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, say the manufacturing technique can be used to create smoother and more flexible metals.

Smartphones, tablets, and other high-spec electronics rely on internal circuit boards to function.

Current fabrication techniques use stencil masks to "spray paint" liquid metal into circuit board forms, which can result in rough textures. The rougher the circuit, the less efficient information relays, and processing, becomes.

In addition, this can cause overheating and battery drain -- a persistent problem in mobile devices.

However, the team from Purdue says that the new manufacturing technique has turned back to the humble printing press for inspiration in how to enhance our future electronics.

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Roll-to-roll newspaper printing utilizes stamps to print paper at high speeds. The new fabrication method, called roll-to-roll laser-induced superplasticity, borrows from these traditional techniques.

Stamps are also used, in the form of shots of energy passed by laser, which are able to superelasticate metal for short periods of time. In this small windows, the metal then flows into the features of the stamp.

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Purdue University/Ramses Martinez

The stamp is designed on the nanoscale. As metal flows through and imbues the features of the stamp, before solidifying, these molds offer a far more efficient and concise way to map circuit boards.

According to the scientists, printing circuit boards in this way eradicates fabrication barriers and has the potential to make our electronic devices quicker.

"Forming metals with increasingly smaller shapes requires molds with higher and higher definition, until you reach the nanoscale size," said Ramses Martinez, one of the authors of the study. "Adding the latest advances in nanotechnology requires us to pattern metals in sizes that are even smaller than the grains they are made of. It's like making a sand castle smaller than a grain of sand."

The smoother the metal used in circuit boards, the quicker the flow of information -- and potentially there may also be less heat generation and battery drain as a bonus.

This technique may not only address the smoothness of circuit board components but also addresses the so-called "formability limit" which prevents traditional manufacturers from printing high-quality boards, capable of high speeds, at the nanoscale quickly.

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The new printing technique aims to make metals smoother and more flexible for better current flow throughout a metallic circuit.

Purdue University/Ramses Martinez

As our electronic devices become smaller and require metal components in even smaller dimensions, spray-paint manufacturing methods might not be able to keep up -- or produce circuit boards of a high enough quality.

The team says that the new technique is cost-effective, too. The system was created by off-the-shelf parts which can be used to manufacture on a large scale.

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Should roll-to-roll laser-induced superplasticity gain the interest of investors, we may be able to speed them up even further -- without sacrificing battery life.

"In the future, the roll-to-roll fabrication of devices using our technique could enable the creation of touch screens covered with nanostructures capable of interacting with light and generating 3D images, as well as the cost-effective fabrication of more sensitive biosensors," Martinez said.

The research has been published in the academic journal Nano Letters.

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