New Cheap 'Electronic Ink': Boon For Solar Cells and Touchpads

Light is emitted from excited argon gas atoms flowing through the glass tube of a plasma reactor. The plasma is a reactive environment used to produce silicon nanocrystals that can be used as e-ink

Researchers have invented a low-cost method “electronic ink” to make silicon nanocrystals that can be used as e-ink in inexpensive electronics or in solar cells that cost cost under ten dollars. The new material was developed by the University of Minnesota‘s College of Science and Engineering and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and it’s composed of silicon nanocrystals – which are non-toxic and can be printed on inexpensive plastic substrates.

“Imagine a world where every child in a developing country could learn reading and math from a touch pad that costs less than $10 or home solar cells that finally cost less than fossil fuels,” said Uwe Kortshagen, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor and one of the coauthors of the paper.
The research team discovered a novel technology to produce a specialised type of ink from non-toxic nanometer-sized crystals of silicon, often called “electronic ink.” This “electronic ink” could produce inexpensive electronic devices with techniques that essentially print it onto inexpensive sheets of plastic.

To create the ink, scientists developed a new method to ensure a good shelf-life and enhanced electrical properties. They used an ionized gas called ‘nonthermal plasma’ to produce the silicon nanocrystals and cover the particles in a layer of chlorine atoms. The chlorine helps to incite a reaction that when paired with some widely used solvents produces a silicon ink. This new material does not need the soap-like ligands, or molecules that most other silicon inks require. The process also allows for the “doping” of films, meaning that deliberately planted impurities in the nanocrystals assist in increasing their electronic conductivity. The ink is able to move electrons at a rate of 1,000 times that of non-doped substances.

Setup for producing e-ink

“This process for producing electronics is almost like screen printing,” said Lance Wheeler, a University of Minnesota student and lead author of the research. But it’s not quite that easy.

“What this research means is that we are one step closer to producing more pure and more stable electronic ink with non-toxic chemicals,” Kortshagen said. “The bigger goal here is to find a way that this research can benefit everyone and make a real difference.”

The research will pave the way for making cheaper renewable technologies and mobile devices which will be particularly advantageous to those living in developing nations who lack access to clean and cheap sources of power.

The research was published in the recent issue of Nature Communications, an international online research journal.

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Write by: RC - Thursday, August 8, 2013

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