Imagine huge, flexible TVs that span entire walls, electronic billboards
that mold to the contours of any surface, and tiny "smart" tags in food
packaging. Printed electronics may make innovations like these possible, and
affordable, in the not so distant future.
Small, lightweight and flexible, printed electronics use traditional
printing processes, so they are much easier and lower cost to make than their
silicon cousins, which require high temperatures and ultra clean production
conditions. In fact, plastic transistors may one day be printed from an
ink-jet-like printer on your desk onto pieces of plastic that could be folded
up and put in your pocket.
This technology has enormous potential for a number of industries, including
consumer products and electronics, the military, and of course, communications.
Bell Labs is home to some of the most innovative research in plastic
electronics, and top experts, including Elsa Reichmanis, director, Materials
for Communications Research, who recently sat down with us to talk about the
technology and to imagine its possibilities.
How are plastic electronics going to change my everyday
There are a lot of different applications that you might see in the
not-too-distant future. For example, instead of having a newspaper delivered to
your door every day, you might have a very lightweight, flexible sheet of
plastic. It would be a paper-like display, and every morning, or every few
hours, as you want to see new content, you could update and refresh the
Plastic electronics also may make it possible for you to get rid of the
heavy laptop that you lug around and replace it with something lightweight and
As another example, if you go to see a movie in a large theater, you might
have a very large-area display that conforms to a curved surface. So you would
see parts of the movie in your peripheral vision, which is more realistic --
how you see the world everyday.
Healthcare is another industry that could benefit from plastic electronics.
Soon it might be possible to have containers for medications, such as an asthma
inhaler, that have sensor technology built into them, so they automatically
register how many uses are left. This sensor could tell you a few days ahead of
time that it is now time to get a refill.
Similarly, sensors on foods, such as a bag of potato chips, could indicate
whether or not they've been tampered with or are past their freshness peak.
In terms of military applications, you could have lightweight technologies
that would help military commanders sense their soldiers' locations, monitor
their overall health and prevent them from being seen in the field.
For example, think about plastic media that can change color. It could be
possible to integrate sensors into fibers and fabrics that can be turned into
clothing, potentially enabling camouflage materials that would allow a person
to completely blend into the background by "seeing" what is behind them
and then presenting that same image on the clothing's surface.
We're not there yet in terms of these applications, but we're starting to
develop the building blocks that will get us there.
What else should we know about plastic electronics?
We are not developing a technology that is going to replace silicon. Silicon
technology has a long history and will be with us for a long time. What we're
doing is trying to develop a technology that is going to facilitate something
that silicon can't do. You can't fold or bend silicon. You can't have a silicon
display be meters in size, and be conformable and flexible. We're trying to
enable a different market with a different set of technologies, while at the
same time, learning more about communication devices and hopefully applying
those lessons to our current business challenges.
When will I be able to change the color of my car to match my
I think that is about 10 years off. And if we are talking about 10 years
off, we're at a point where we can't predict. A little nearer-term, when we
might be able to have a flexible plastic electronic display medium that can
start to mimic print content in magazines, newspapers and books -- that I
believe is within just a few years. There is a lot of interest in that now.
Where was this technology 10 years ago, when Lucent was
When Lucent was born, we were busy engaging in fundamental research in
organic semiconductors. We were learning how to design and synthesize molecules
that allowed for charge transport, and beginning to learn about the physics of
charge transport in organic materials. Within the last five years, we've made
major steps toward integrating what we've learned from fundamental chemistry
and physics, with processing concepts and the fabrication technologies that
will be needed to produce very low-cost, large-area devices.
In 2001, we demonstrated the first flexible electronic paper prototype by
laminating or coupling an electrophoretic display (a reflective display that
uses charged particles for the pixels that go on or off as needed for a
particular image) with an all-plastic backplane (the "unseen" part of a
display that provides the electrical signals that tell the pixels to turn on or
off). We did this in a cooperative relationship with a company called E Ink, in
which they designed and fabricated the display components and we designed and
produced the backplane, or drive electronics. While each pixel in this display
was large, it was a demonstration that the e-paper concept could work.
Last year, in 2005, we had the first demonstration of an all-printed
circuit. We worked in collaboration with BASF and a small printing company
called printed systems GmbH to develop a working oscillator circuit using a
traditional printing press, the sort that is used to print newspapers.
We're looking to expand our collaborations now to bring in device
researchers and start thinking seriously about the applications that are going
to drive the technology. It is one thing to look at the materials from a
fundamental perspective, but what excites me is taking those fundamental
concepts and turning them into something real, to do what Bell Labs does best
-- get people in a room who come from different disciplines and have very
different perspectives; think about the problem and come up with new
What is the most exciting thing about working with plastic
It is the combination of being able to see the transition of a research
concept into a real world application, coupled with the ability to work with a
lot of great people who come from different backgrounds, who have different
expertise and different perspectives, and seeing that group come together to
turn something into reality.
What is the biggest obstacle to plastic electronics becoming
We still need to better understand the reliability issues with these
materials. How long are they going to last? Why do they fail? We need a better
understanding of the trade-offs between the device's circuit designs and what
that means for the material. How can we find an appropriate compromise between
limitations on the materials side and requirements from the devices and how do
we come together to make it work?
Why is this technology important for Lucent's future?
This is the sort of fundamental research that Bell Labs is known for. We are
not only pushing the envelope, but we are developing new technologies for
potentially new markets that Lucent could explore. This work also leverages the
many research areas of Bell Labs -- from materials, physical sciences and
nanotechnology, to device and circuit design and implementation, to the design
and development of new communications media. Plastic electronics may also help
us improve Lucent's current products by identifying new ways to integrate
multiple functionalities into devices, making our products potentially smaller,
lighter and more efficient to produce.