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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials November 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

Foldable Glass

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

A flexible and foldable revolution is set to occur within the consumer-electronics industry. Recent research is, for the first time, enabling the fabrication of foldable electronic devices made from glass.

Description

Glass—normally rigid and brittle—is a crucial element in almost all portable electronic devices. In July 2015, researchers from Yonsei University published the results of their research into the first example of fully foldable glass substrates. The scientists used wet-etching techniques to thin sections of the glass to a thickness of about 0.1 millimeter—localizing the folding to these areas. The samples could undergo repeated and reversible folding without demonstrating mechanical failure or any issues related to device performance. However, thinned areas of glass that undergo repeated deformations will invariably exhibit issues related to mechanical stability, and encasing devices in suitable housing to reinforce the glass is probably necessary. Such a housing would also enable the integration of other components necessary for the construction of, for example, a display or portable electronic device. The Yonsei researchers developed foldable housing for their devices and are currently applying for a patent on the design.

Implications

Many examples of flexible and foldable electronic devices exist. However, many of these prototypes, prepared on ultrathin substrates that have a thickness of only 1 or 2 micrometers, are not suitably robust for applications in portable electronic devices that require a high degree of mechanical stability. Nonplanar (but rigid) glass also finds use in some applications such as certain curved smartphones or televisions. The Yonsei development does, however, represent the first example of a fully foldable glass substrate's finding use in an electronic device. However, the technology remains at an academic level and will require significant additional research before it can reach commercial markets.

Flexible and foldable electronics could result in greater portability for larger devices. The ability to fabricate foldable electronic devices that incorporate glass could yield technical and commercial advantages over plastic-based alternatives. Any advantage, no matter how small, could prove extremely important, particularly given the potential market for such devices. Although consumer electronics is likely to be the largest market sector for foldable electronics, other applications could result. For example, large-area displays, photovoltaic panels, or sensing systems could all benefit from the small footprint that the ability to fold affords.

Impacts/Disruptions

Flexible and foldable electronic devices have the potential to alter fundamentally how people interact with technology—making devices more portable and discrete. Other advanced glass products for electronics applications are already on the market. For example, Corning—a major player in the glass and ceramic industries—sells its Willow Glass product: a "thin and flexible glass substrate for ultra-slim displays." However, such glass materials will have to compete with a wide range of emerging nanomaterial-based technologies that also enable flexible and foldable applications.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics, display, glass

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Novel Metallic Catalysts for Fuel-Cell Applications

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Metals and ceramics play a key role in many fuel-cell systems. Recent research into novel metallic catalysts could enhance the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel cells across a number of applications.

Description

Proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells combine hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the air to produce electricity. The only by-product is water. In June 2015, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), published in the scientific journal Science the results of their research into novel metallic catalysts for use in fuel cells. The nanostructured alloys—a combination of molybdenum, nickel, and platinum—enhance the efficiency of the fuel cell, reduce production costs, and prolong the cell's lifetime. The researchers found that their novel alloy is 81 times more efficient than commercial platinum-carbon compounds. A UCLA press release also states that "the three-metal compound retained about 95 percent of its efficiency over time—significantly better than the efficiency rate of 66 percent or less for platinum-nickel catalysts."

Similarly, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology are using hollow platinum nanocages to reduce the overall catalyst cost. These structures enable the oxygen-reduction reactions to take place at both the internal and the external surfaces of the catalyst—increasing efficiency and reducing the quantity of platinum in use. A Georgia Tech press release states that "Use of these nanocage structures in fuel cell electrodes could increase the utilization efficiency of the platinum by a factor of as much as seven." The researchers also found that the catalytic activity of their materials dropped by only 33% after 10,000 operating cycles—on a par with the activity of current commercial systems.

Implications

Any development that reduces catalyst cost will have a positive influence on the economic viability of fuel cells for commercial applications. UCLA's approach—doping platinum nickel catalysts with molybdenum to enhance performance—is particularly novel and could find use in a wide range of other applications that require catalysts such as catalytic converters, the generation of energy, or the industrial scale production of chemicals. The researchers at Georgia Tech essentially try to tackle the same problem by changing the structure of the catalyst to reduce the quantities of platinum in use.

However, both sets of research are currently at a very early stage and will require additional development before they can find use in commercial applications.

Impacts/Disruptions

The implementation of fuel-cell technology has the potential to be a game changer across several commercial sectors. For example, the widespread commercialization of automobiles powered by fuel cells could revolutionize the automotive industry, resulting in significant environmental benefits and severely disrupting the petrochemical industry. Similarly, the uptake of fuel cells in homes or in industrial settings has the potential to transform the energy sector as a whole, reducing reliance on nationwide grids and volatile pricing schemes. The May 2013 Viewpoints discusses several business opportunities related to the introduction of fuel cells, as well as some drivers for and barriers to commercialization.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Energy, automotive, fuel cell, catalysis

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: