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Nanoelectronics July 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

3D-Printed Graphene

Why is this topic significant?

Energy storage is one of the most important issues currently facing society. Recent developments in 3D-printed graphene could contribute to a solution.

Description

In April 2015, scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published the results of their research into 3D-printed graphene-aerogel microlattices in Nature Communications. The researchers claim that the lattices—in addition to exhibiting a high surface area and displaying a Young's modulus that is an order of magnitude better than that of bulk graphene—also are "lightweight, highly conductive and exhibit supercompressibility (up to 90% compressive strain)," making them potentially useful for a range of energy-storage and electronic applications. Using the "direct-ink-writing" 3D-printing technique and highly viscous graphene-oxide inks, the scientists were able to fabricate, for the first time, graphene-aerogel structures with controllable features.

Researchers from Northwestern University also released the results of their research into 3D-printed graphene structures in April 2015. The work, which they published in ACS Nano, describes the use of extrusion-based 3D printing to prepare structures with graphene volume fractions of 60%. Previously, researchers struggled to achieve graphene volume fractions of over 20% in 3D-printed structures. In addition to being flexible, the scaffolds exhibit high electrical conductivity and high mechanical resistance. The researchers can use their techniques to prepare arbitrary shapes at the centimeter scale—making the technique suitable for the fabrication of functional devices.

Implications

All the potential advantages that 3D printing could bring to manufacturing industries—such as reduced waste, increased freedom of design, and the optimization of physical and electronic properties—also apply to the 3D printing of nanomaterials such as graphene. The graphene inks are particularly easy—and cost efficient—to fabricate in large volumes—an important issue for any potential industrial-scale applications. The technique could also enable some nanoelectronics applications that would otherwise be too technically challenging or prohibitively expensive to realize. For example, developers can exploit 3D printing to tailor macroscale graphene structures for applications in the field of energy storage. Other potential uses include uses as sensors in biodegradable electronics or in conventional consumer products. The biocompatibility of graphene also makes the material particularly suitable for bioelectronics-implant applications.

The combination of 3D printing and graphene holds a great deal of potential for nanoelectronics. However, the use of these techniques to prepare 3D graphene-based structures remains in its infancy, and this field is likely to require several years of additional research before the commercialization of any such products could take place.

Impacts/Disruptions

The material could have a substantial impact on technology areas in addition to the potential energy-storage, sensor, and—indeed—patient-specific bioelectronics applications that could arise from 3D-printed graphene. For example, a need exists for innovative biomaterials that could find use in nervous-tissue-regeneration applications. However, innovations in 3D printing that facilitate the fabrication of more intricate structures and that enable the inclusion of a variety of materials are likely to be necessary before any commercialization of these materials or devices can occur.

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 to 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Health, defense, consumer electronics, display

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Transparent-Conductive Developments at Canatu

Why is this topic significant?

Indium tin oxide is currently the material of choice for the vast majority of transparent conductive applications. However, flexible, cheaper alternatives—such as films based on carbon nanotubes—are set to revolutionize this market in the coming years.

Description

In April 2015, Canatu announced the launch of a new line of high-optical-transmittance transparent-conductive films. The company claims that its sixth generation of "carbon nanobud" films exhibits particularly high transmittance, zero haze, and zero reflectance. These properties make the films especially useful for applications in which optical performance is of the utmost importance—such as high-contrast displays for outdoor use. Depending on the application, Canatu offers two distinct films—each produced on its new roll-to-roll fabrication machinery. The first exhibits an optical transmittance of 95% and a sheet resistivity of 100 ohms per square; the second possesses an optical transmittance of 97% and a sheet resistance of 150 ohms per square. Despite the existence of competing technologies that offer lower sheet resistivities, the Canatu films display unparalleled optical performance.

In March 2015, Canatu also launched a new superthin transparent-conductive film. The film has a thickness of just 23 µm—making it the thinnest commercially available transparent conductive film. In testing, the film exhibited a change in sheet resistivity of only 1% after 150,000 bends to a radius of 2 mm—a world record.

Implications

Canatu now produces films that exhibit superior optical properties at industry-leading thicknesses. Improved optical properties can lead to more efficient use of energy—potentially increasing battery lifetimes by up to 20%. Additionally, the flexible nature of these films will provide product designers with almost complete freedom to realize a wide range of innovative electronic devices. Indeed, the Canatu press release states that the company is now "entering mass manufacturing with several design wins to be announced later [in 2015] for consumer electronics, wearables, household appliances, and automotive use." Canatu—in preparing such high-performance films—is demonstrating its ability to react to customer demand and—after years of product development—is potentially entering into a highly lucrative commercial period.

Impacts/Disruptions

Consumer demand for flexible, thinner, and cheaper electronic devices is driving demand for technologies alternative to indium tin oxide (ITO). The rise of these flexible alternatives will have a major disruptive impact on the market for incumbent materials such as ITO or zinc oxide—a technology that will essentially become obsolete in the next three to five years.

Carbon-nanotube films—developed by firms such as Canatu and OCSiAl—appear well placed to gain traction in the market for transparent-conductive materials. However, other emerging technologies—such as metallic nanowires, conductive polymers, graphene, and metal meshes—are vying for market penetration in what is developing into a highly competitive technology area. Players such as Samsung, Cambrios, Carestream Advanced Materials, and Cima NanoTech are all vying to capitalize on their own specific technological expertise to create business opportunities in this sphere.

Scale of Impact

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

Time of Impact

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

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics, display, organic electronics, automotive, photovoltaics, smart windows

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: