With plastic electronics, cheap solar panels and sensors

Plastic electronics could lead to electronic wallpaper, energy-generating windows and medical patches that deliver medicine on demand, Princeton researchers say.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Back in March, we wrote that Princeton University scientists figured out how to make plastics conduct electricity.

Now, a new video describes how these plastics could be used: for electronics.

Compared to silicon, "plastic electronics" are lightweight, low-cost (compared to, for example, the indium tin oxide used in solar panels) and can change shape easily.

Researchers think plastic electronics could give rise to electronic wallpaper, windows that generate energy (by absorbing the sun's rays), inexpensive solar panels and patches that deliver medicine when you need it most.

To make this a reality, researchers need to mass-produce plastic transistors, not unlike your home printer prints on a piece of paper.

"Conductive polymers [plastics] have been around for a long time, but processing them to make something useful degraded their ability to conduct electricity," said Yueh-Lin Loo, a chemical engineering professor at Princeton, at the time.

The problem with moldable plastic electronics was that they would lose conductivity as they were shaped. But the Princeton researchers developed a new technique in which they relaxed the structure of the plastics by treating them with an acid after they were processed.

The result: a plastic transistor, made by quite simply printing the plastic onto a surface. That's significant because expensive, specific machines would no longer be needed to manufacture the electronic parts.

The use cases for such plastics are many: as diagnostic tools and sensors, they could change colors to indicate change, such as if a patient is sick. As solar cells, they would be quickly and efficiently manufactured. And the technique could lend itself to improved TV and computer displays, too.

According to a IDTechEx research report, the market for printed and thin film electronics will be $1.92 billion this year -- about 43 percent of that for OLED displays. But by 2020, the market will grow to $55.1 billion.

Plastic electronics wouldn't entirely replace traditional electronics, of course -- but in key situations, they would ensure faster, cheaper, smarter production.

Here's a look:

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