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Nanoelectronics May 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Flexible-Electronics Developments

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

Why is this topic significant?

Flexible-electronics applications hold enormous potential. Recent developments demonstrate how major players are focusing their effort on the commercialization of this technology.

Description

In February 2017, DuPont Electronics and Communications—one of the eight business focus areas of the advanced-materials company DuPont—and the Holst Centre—"an independent R&D center that develops technologies for wireless autonomous sensor technologies and for flexible electronics"—announced that they are extending their research collaboration for the third time. The partners stated that DuPont will provide materials that pursue Holst's aims in wearable electronics, in-mold electronics, consumer electronics, and health care.

A Holst press release states that the partnership will focus on "developing and testing complete complementary material systems and successfully creating working demonstrators and prototypes, with the development of commercial products as the end goal." In practice, the collaboration will build on its past work by concentrating on the commercialization of nano- and microscale inks and pastes, roll-to-roll processing, and curing/sintering systems. Alternative applications under development by the collaboration include flexible sensors, smart packaging, in-mold electronics, organic photovoltaics, and organic light-emitting-diode lighting solutions.

Implications

The DuPont/Holst collaboration can point to several examples of success through the years. For example, the development of novel nanoscale silver inks and pastes for electronics applications led to the commercialization of DuPont's high-performance ink-jet silver ink PE410. Holst and DuPont's joint demonstration of a smart shirt that tracks heart-rate and breathing activity at the January 2017 Wearable Expo Japan in Tokyo also represents an area of productive collaboration with potential for commercial gain.

The collaboration perfectly illustrates how relatively small R&D centers can collaborate with major global players. Holst can access markets that would otherwise be extremely difficult to penetrate; DuPont can codevelop industry-leading technology that could lead to highly lucrative commercial opportunities in rapidly expanding markets. The major players currently active in the area of flexible electronics—including DuPont—are making efforts to develop an extremely broad portfolio of materials and technologies in flexible electronics, essentially hedging their bets that one will give rise to a commercial opportunity. In a market that is still in its infancy, agility will prove crucial for players that are looking to maximize their chances of hitting on a major commercial success.

Impacts/Disruptions

Printed and flexible electronics offer additional and novel functionality that can enable a wide range of innovative applications. Additionally, traditional barriers—such as limited production capacity or consumer acceptance—no longer present as much of an obstacle to commercialization.

In particular, the market for conductive pastes and inks, currently dominated by demand from within the photovoltaics industry, is set to grow significantly as more flexible and nonplanar form-factor products reach the market. Through working directly with original equipment manufacturers in, for example, the apparel industry, players in the flexible-electronics market will be able jointly to develop applications and products that both meet product specifications—such as washability and high abrasion resistance—and provide added value to the consumer.

Beyond wearables, smart-packaging is another market that is likely to expand rapidly in the coming years. Added value versus cost and how consumers react to novel brand interactions will largely determine the extent of this growth.

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

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics, wearables, Internet of Things, smart packaging, lighting, transportation, health care

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Carbon-Nanotube Sensors

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

Why is this topic significant?

Accurate, sensitive sensors support a wide range of applications. Recent research demonstrates considerable progress in the commercialization of carbon-nanotube sensors.

Description

Carbon nanotubes—cylindrical carbon molecules—have impressive optoelectronic properties. Recent research demonstrates advances in the field of carbon-nanotube sensors:

  • In March 2017, AerNos—a small company specializing in the sale of nanotechnology-based gas sensors—announced that its carbon-nanotube platform is finding use in the development of sensors that can detect multiple harmful gases simultaneously. According to an AerNos press release, its technology "employs a 3 mm x 3 mm MEMS (microeletromechanical-systems) circuitry, hybrid nanostructures, nanoelectronics and data science to dramatically improve air quality monitoring capabilities." The sensors can reportedly detect in the parts-per-billion range in almost real time while consuming minimal power.
  • Also in March 2017, Memorial Sloan Kettering scientists released the results of their research into the application of carbon-nanotube sensors for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The absorption and emission of infrared radiation by the nanotubes—implanted under the skin—return information relating to biomarkers of the disease, enabling clinicians to determine, for example, whether a tumor is growing.
  • In February 2017, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the results of their use of carbon-nanotube-based sensors to image the emission of the neurotransmitter dopamine from a single cell. The nanotubes fluoresce when irradiated with laser light and in the presence of dopamine—leading to highly accurate measurements that would be impossible using alternative techniques.

Implications

The AerNos development could find use in a wide variety of applications, from the monitoring of air quality and detecting of food spoilage to industrial safety and security or defense systems. One of the most appealing aspects of this technology is that in addition to potentially enabling a range of novel applications—such as wearable devices or smart clothing—it is also relatively easy to integrate into existing products and infrastructure. Such an approach could accelerate commercialization of this technology in the short term, particularly given the emergent Internet of Things.

In the health sector, carbon nanotubes could enable powerful sensors and potentially facilitate a step change in how clinicians diagnose and monitor diseases. Wearable devices that continuously track biomarkers could provide more detailed and accurate information than invasive biopsies can provide. The technology also offers cost savings through earlier warnings of deteriorating health, which also boosts patient outcomes and helps determine the course of treatment that a patient should take.

Similarly, the MIT development, although representing more fundamental research, could ultimately enable progress in the biomedical sector. According to the researchers, such biosensors could yield advances in biopharmaceutical manufacturing and cell therapy.

Impacts/Disruptions

The recent and substantial progress in carbon-nanotube sensors suggests that the technology is reaching a tipping point and could be on the verge of making a significant commercial breakthrough. In addition, the broad range of applications highlights the facts that the field of nanoelectronics need not confine itself to the integrated-circuit industry and that a wide variety of potential commercial opportunities lie beyond this market.

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

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, wearables, environmental, biomedical

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: