Maturing Printed Electronics Infrastructure Enables Solar and Memory Markets

Maturing Printed Electronics Infrastructure Enables Solar and Memory Markets

Development of the infrastructure for printing functional materials is at last starting to generate real progress in potentially serious high-volume markets beyond display layers and light-up signage, to light-weight, flexible photovoltaics and ultra low-cost memory components.  There have been significant developments in inks and substrates, and hybrid solutions are now available for sintering and rapid thermal processing to improve performance of the solution-deposited films.  Now the challenge may be figuring out the real market drivers for these new capabilities.

One possibility involves portable solar cells integrated into other materials. Printed organic solar cells have made major progress in efficiency in the last few years, with Solarmer Energy now up to 8.4% with its flexible roll-to-roll printed OPV.  Key markets will be those that take advantage of the light weight, flexible materials for applications not possible with glass, like bags, vests, tents, and portable electronics, as well as   indoor applications where the technology can be more efficient than traditional PV, but eventually building integrated PV power-generating windows and roofs could be the “killer app,” says Vishal Shrotriya, Solarmer technology director. Though the R2R capital equipment investment for printed electronics is appealingly low, the cost of the specialty materials remains high, so materials development remains key to lower costs and better lifetimes.
Marked Improvement in OPV Efficiency in Recent Years
Low-cost printed memory is another option.  Thin Film Electronics is printing 20-bit single line memory in ink on flexible substrate, and has now moved on to the next and perhaps harder task of integrating the memory with other electronics and building the applications to drive demand.  Jennifer Ernst, VP North America, says the company is working with major toy and game companies delivering prototyping design services and toolkits, and is also experiencing growing interest from other industries. Recently, Thinfilm announced higher capacity memory tags that will support encryption for applications like secure archiving and ticketing. With partners, the company will be introducing rewritable printed memory into areas such as NFC, logistics and dynamic labels.

Sector Starts Open Materials Database

There are still plenty of opportunities for better materials, as well as for figuring out how to best use the ones we have. Materials suppliers have developed a wide range of functional inks, flexible substrates, and encapsulation materials for printed electronics in recent years, but the young industry is still trying to figure out how best to use them in manufacturing products.  It’s hard to know what’s available, what have been successful applications, what the key properties are, how to consistently measure those properties in some repeatable way everyone can agree on, and how the materials will interact with other materials.

To jumpstart the development of this accumulation of necessary industry knowledge, FlexTech Alliance has contracted with Western Michigan University’s Center for the Advancement of Printed Electronics to create an open-access database of technical information on available functional materials for both research and production of printed electronics. Dr. Erika Rebrosova is currently collecting data from materials suppliers, targeting release of a preliminary version by the end of this summer.  The database will be freely open to anyone in the preview phase, then will go to subscription-based access, but will be free to FlexTech members and materials suppliers who list their products.

These speakers will have more to say about these developments at SEMICON West, in a session presented with our partner The FlexTech Alliance. Other featured presentations on the agenda include NanoMarkets on the market outlook, Xenon Corp. on photonic sintering, NovaCentrix on rapid thermal processing of copper, and Nth Degree Technologies on printing micro semiconductor structures. For information on the “Printed/Flexible Electronics: Beyond R&D to Real Deal Technologies” program at SEMICON West 2011 on July 14, please visit

July 5, 2011