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Plastic Electronics and the Ink-Jet Future

printedtransistor.jpgIt's entirely possible that one of the most important technological innovations of the 20th century will turn out to have been the lowly ink-jet printer. As it happens, the technology that makes it possible to squirt minute quantities of ink in precise patterns onto a sheet of paper is perfect for spraying out other materials (such as resin, plastic and even biological tissues), assembling them into solid objects. In some cases, the only significant difference between an experimental fabricator and the cheap printer that came free with a box of cereal is the content of the "ink" cartridge.

We're rapidly approaching a time when useful objects can be printed out as easily as a photo. Related breakthroughs are happening regularly. The Material Science group at Northwestern University published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, describing a new, very low voltage thin-film organic transistor material which will allow both inexpensive production and significantly lower power-consumption for plastic electronics.

"This means having plastic electronics the size of a pen battery -- rather than an automobile battery -- power your cell phone," said [Northwestern Professor of Chemistry Tobin] Marks. "And, instead of being carved out of silicon, transistor structures would be printed in a fashion similar to that of newspapers, but with organic molecules as the ink and plastic as the paper. Much as the New York Times prints a different edition of the newspaper every day, we could flexibly print a wide variety of electronic devices quickly, easily and cheaply."

We talk about fabbing (aka "3-D printing" and "stereolithography") with alarming frequency here for a few reasons: the necessary technologies are coming together very quickly; it has a significant "open source" potential; and, for both the developed world and the developing world, it has the potential to be seriously worldchanging. Material fabrication using ink-jet technology will be something we'll be dealing with far sooner than many might expect; of the various near-term and medium-term technological and social changes we talk about here, this will be one of the first to hit big. All the more critical, then, that we start thinking now about what we're going to want and need from the ink-jet future.

So thought-experiment time: what would be required to make a 3-D printing world sustainable? What does "cradle-to-cradle" fabbing look like? What does the capability to print electronics & photovoltaics make possible that we couldn't do before?


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Comments (7)


'What does the capability to print electronics & photovoltaics make possible that we couldn't do before?'

Hmm... Ok, off the top of my head, just daydreaming:

Optical thin films can produce some neat effects with visible light. Artistic applications?

If the ability to print your own circuits is widespread, we might see open-source circuit design for various applications.

What about the reversible thermoelectric nanomaterials post from a week ago? Lots of thing become possible if people can print their own power generators, however small the output.

Can crude LCDs be made with this technique? If you can make plastic electronics and LCDs, you can make all sorts of animated pictures and stick them anywhere. Maybe even clothing too.

printable radios? *seriously useful*

In the west, this is probably going to simply accelerate the convergence of electronic mobile devices that has been occurring anyway - mobile phone = games console = camera = internet connectivity = pedometer = video player = music listening and production etc. However in the developing world it promises to spread connectedness across whole new swathes of the population - if someone is willing to facilitate the collection of microprofits in a similar way to the growth of microcredit.

This also has magnifies the implications of the Free Software movement, the Creative Commons project and the current fight b/w the Anarchists and the Oligarchs.

well, you should get much longer warranties on products and bring a new meaning to technical support. Just call up, describe your problem, have a circuit emailed to you and stick it in your iPod!
Upgrades to digital camera's, cellphone's, and radio's are just a click away.
How about hometown engineers able to sell their designs to people all around the world.

glen leason:

I have been an investor in PV Since the late 70's
I have always been dumbfounded why almost nobody took the time to put it up on their roofs.even back then.Maybe this time they will see the light.GlenL

The 3d fabber is likely to be restricted in a great many places as you probably will be able to make weapons with it. Anyplace that has serious gun control legislation on the books is likely to find itself with fabbed weapons and generate a strong move to control or outright ban the technology.

If it can get you new lawnmower blades, you've got something that can make deadly weaponry.


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