Canadian Plastics

Inherently conductive polymers enable major technological breakthrough in electronics

Organic electronics has come a long way since Gilligan first cracked open a coconut to build a radio....

December 1, 2005   By Rebecca Reid, associate editor



Organic electronics has come a long way since Gilligan first cracked open a coconut to build a radio.

Today, plastics plays a key role in the field, and in fact, the electronics industry is banking on plastics to rescue it from some of the technological stumbling blocks hindering new product innovation.

Electronics firms can only make money by continuously offering smaller, faster and more fully featured products. Already in the vast majority of devices, plastics feature prominently, but primarily for exterior casing rather than the “brains” of the devices. However, it is cost-prohibitive for manufactures to use existing materials like silicone and metals to make circuits any smaller.

The only alternative was for the electronics industry to seek alternative materials and many firms are now hedging their bets on plastic.

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Unfortunately, existing polymers do not have the properties needed to enable further miniaturization of electronics, said Dr. George M. Whitesides, a professor at Harvard University in Boston, Mass., during a technical conference at Xerox Corp.’s research and development centre in Markham, Ont.

The polymers degrade when repeatedly exposed to electrical current, he said.

The only solution Whitesides argued is the development an entirely new polymer that is easier to process for electronics applications and resists degradation when electricity passes through it repeatedly.

Unfortunately, the cost of developing a new polymer is enormous and materials firms like Dow and DuPont simply don’t have enough money in their R&D budgets to do it.

That’s why companies like Xerox are stepping up to the plate.

In fact, Xerox’s Canadian research centre is dedicated entirely to materials research, said Dr. Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and manager at Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Markham, Ont.

Already, Xerox has been successful developing a new polymer that conducts electricity without degrading. The firm plans to integrate the polymer with its existing printing technology to develop a cheap way to make radio frequency identification tags (RFID). RFID tags. Essentially, the printer would use the polymer as an “ink,” to print circuits onto paper.

If successful, this would allow manufacturing companies to cheaply print their own RFID tags right on the shop floor for pennies or less.

Xerox isn’t the only firm researching cheaper ways to produce RFID tags. In fact, Erlangen, Germany-based company, PolyIC, a joint venture between Kurz GmbH&Co. KG, and Siemens AG, announced in November 2004 it had successfully used printing techniques to produce a stable organic (polymer-based) circuits operating at 600 Khz, but is aiming to reach is aiming to reach the industry standard of 13.56 Mhz.

PolyIC’s first commercial chips will be available in 2006 and can be used as forgery-proof labels, the firm said.

PolyIC has also licensed an inherently conductive polymer (ICP) from Plextronics to aid with its research. Plextronics first commercialized product, PlexCore OS P3HT, is an organic semi-conductor based on a regioregular polythiophene developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Plextronics is a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon

Plextronics is also developing Plexcore HIL, another ICP designed specifically to be an injection layer for organic light-emitting displays (OLEDs) to replace liquid crystal displays (LEDs) and plasma screens.

And even though the organic electronics industry is still in its infancy, North America is already playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

“North America has not put the same amount of dollars into organic electronics as Europe and Asia, and we’re starting to see assets be sold from North America into other areas of the world. If we don’t star to invest, we run the risk of falling behind,” Hannah said.


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