New project takes measure of plastic electronics

November 24, 2004

In the future, the phrase smarty pants might be taken quite literally, referring to trousers embedded with electronic "intelligence" so that they change color, for example, in response to their surroundings.

The timing of this vernacular twist will depend on when plastic "chips" become practical--so cheap and reliable that electronic circuits can be printed not only on clothing but also on paper, billboards and nearly anything else. Unlike today's largely silicon-based technologies, organic (carbon-based) materials are flexible, can be processed at low temperatures and lend themselves to large-area applications, such as wall-sized electronic murals.

Before the emerging field of organic electronics can deliver on its commercial promise, however, new measurements, standards and processing capabilities must be developed. Creating many of the requisite tools is the aim of a new five-year research effort at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

"Organic electronics is at a stage akin to the very early days of the silicon semiconductor industry," explains NIST polymer scientist Eric Lin. "Lack of validated diagnostic probes and standardized test and measurement methods is an impediment to progress."

Unfortunately, the job of filling this void is especially challenging. The range of potential materials for organic electronics--from polymers to nanocomposites--is enormous. The number of synthesis and processing methods under consideration is also daunting. Examples include ink-jet printing, roll-to-roll printing and various ways to coax molecules to self-assemble into components.

Accurate, reliable measurements will help solve current manufacturing issues and speed widespread use of the new microchips. Ultimately, says Lin, NIST plans to develop an "integrated measurement platform." The envisioned tool will allow scientists and engineers to predict the performance of organic electronic devices based on composition, structure and materials properties.
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National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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