Techwear is the next step in our integration of technology into our daily lives. Now, two of the latest breakthroughs in wearable tech bring that aim ever closer.
Tomorrow’s electronics are poised to dispose of current rigid parts based on silicon to become soft, bendable and stretchable to serve a wide array of products.
OLED displays are only the start for what flexible electronics promises: roll-up photovoltaic cells, flexible screens, smart sensors, interactive packages, light-sensitive curtains…the list is almost endless.
It all started back in the 1970s with the work of three scientists, Alan MacDiarmid, Alan Heeger, and Hideki Shirakawa, on conductive polymers, and for which they won the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Polymers, easily manipulated, offer an alternative to the use of minerals and allow devices to contain more components on a small footprint and to have new features, all at low cost.
Since the potential of conductive polymers was first shown, then recognized by the Nobel Prize, electronics is still dominated by silicon and other mineral components.
However, scientists and engineers are slowly setting the stage for flexible electronics, a breakthrough at a time.
Today, we cover two scientific steps made toward flexible and stretchable electronics.
Stretchable Device With Smartphone-Like Multifunctionality
A team at the University of California San Diego has developed a pliable and stretchable smart electronic bandage.
The size of a dollar coin, the new wireless wearable can serve as a biomedical device to monitor body signals, such as heart and brain activity, temperature, respiration, eye movement, and it can also monitor a robotic arm.
“Our vision is to make 3D stretchable electronics that are as multifunctional and high-performing as today’s rigid electronics,” said UC San Diego’s professor and senior author Sheng Xu.
The proof-of-concept smart bandage still has room for tiny rigid parts like sensors, an antenna, or an accelerometer, but the structure is mostly flexible so it adheres to different parts of the stretchable and nonplanar skin.
According to researchers, their smart bandage retains all stretchability and flexibility, as well as performance, for over six months.
Now, they’re looking for industrial partners with whom they can “optimize and refine this technology”, and run clinical tests.
Printing Silicon Nanowires Into Flexible Electronics
Engineers at the BEST group (Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies) at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, didn’t create a new flexible device, but a whole new manufacturing method for flexible electronics.
Last year, the same BEST team, led by Professor Ravinder Dahiya, were also behind a solar-powered flexible e-skin for prosthetics.
This time, however, Dahiya and his team developed a printing technique that allows “to affordably ‘print’ high-mobility semiconductor nanowires onto flexible surfaces to develop high-performance ultra-thin electronic layers.”
The team used silicon and zinc oxide to build semiconducting nanowires which they then printed on flexible substrates, using a printer they developed themselves. They found that silicon nanowires are best because they align in straight lines, sparing electrons from navigating twists and turns, thus losing precious time.
“We’ve created a contact-printing system which allows us to reliably create flexible electronics with a high degree of reproducibility, which is a really exciting step towards creating all kinds of bendable, flexible, twistable new devices,” Professor Dahiya said.
The research group has already got the funding necessary for them to scale up the technique and adjust it to industrial needs.