The future of flexible electronics could include smart tablets that can be stretched from mini-size to extra-large or a wrist monitor that appears as a rubber band to monitor heartbeats or wallpaper that turns into an electric display. And it could be produced on a standard printer.
Engineers at Michigan State University have developed what they claim is the first stretchable integrated circuit made entirely using an inkjet printer, which could lead to inexpensive mass production of smart fabric.
“We can conceivably make the costs of producing flexible electronics comparable to the costs of printing newspapers,” says Chuan Wang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State. “Our work could soon lead to printed displays that can easily be stretched to larger sizes, as well as wearable electronics and soft robotics applications.”
The smart fabric is comprised of nanomaterials and organic compounds. The compounds are dissolved in solution to produce different electronic inks, which are then run through the inkjet printer to make the stretchable circuits.
The Next Steps
After the ink was created, engineers were able to create the elastic material, the circuit and the organic light emitting diode (OLED). The next steps will be to combine the circuit with the OLED into a single pixel, which Wang says will take one to two years to complete.
Once a working pixel is created, the smart fabric could potentially be commercialized.
Engineers believe this type of stretchable electronic fabric could be folded and put into a pocket without breaking—something current flexible electronic materials cannot do.
“We have created a new technology that is not yet available,” Wang says. “And we have taken it one big step beyond the flexible screens that are about to become commercially available.”