The future is . . . flexible

USF's marine science researchers are creating new circuit board technology.

By Madhusmita Bora, Times Staff Writer
Published May 11, 2007

Imagine a newspaper that fits into your pocket and automatically updates the latest news or an MP3 player that you can wear as a bracelet, an earring or a necklace.

The possibilities are moving closer to fruition, with a group of researchers at University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg aiming to get a piece of the action.

Their efforts center on a process called flexible, or printable, electronics.

"The big thing about printable electronics is it's providing a means to produce electronic circuit boards using other production methods," said Robert Nolan, principal and co-founder of NanoMarkets, a market analysis firm.

So, instead of traditional, unyielding metallic circuit boards, you can have stretchable materials such as plastics, clothes or even papers anchoring complicated circuit board components. That flexibility opens up a new horizon for designers. And scientists like it because it's becoming cheaper and faster than rigid circuitry.

Unlike printed regular electronics that use vacuum printing, the new technology runs with common press equipment used in the graphic arts industry, such as screen printing and offset lithography.

The market for printable electronics is expected to touch $354-million this year. That number will soar to $12-billion by 2011, Nolan forecasts. The technology is expected to expand in areas that were impenetrable by conventional silicon chips because of their cost, size and brittleness.

At USF's College of Marine Science, researchers are using the technology for underwater sensors. Now they are looking at expanding it to create tags for monitoring small fish and, further down the road, even producing an electronic newspaper.

"We are always interested in cheap systems with a lot of functionality," said David Fries, USF's director of organic microsystems. "With this we can make complex systems simple for use in the environment."

Fries' group works out of a lab that he likes to call an artist's studio. He's busy these days flying to conferences and trying to forge alliances with others working on similar projects.

The primary focus of Fries' team is to develop defense, environmental-related and communication and sensory devices, but they are also exploring innovations to break into the consumer market.

Fries cites some current work with Motorola. "They are interested because they want to keep making smaller and cheaper phones and systems," he said.

Though recent and exciting in this country, the technology is mainstream in Asia, said Chih-hung Chang, a chemical engineering professor at Oregon State University.

"But I don't see the newer applications replacing the traditional silicon chips," Chang said.

St. Petersburg-based electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit agrees.

"It's not about to sweep through our manufacturing process," said Paul Neathway, advanced manufacturing engineering manager.

Yet there are already some sightings of the technology today in the form of digital displays and RFID, or radio frequency identification, used for tracking products on shelves.

The next line of products? Perhaps flexible batteries, medical sensors and small ultra-slim cell phones, Fries said.

Fast Facts:

What are flexible electronics?
A technology for printing electronic circuits by depositing electronic devices on flexible materials such as plastic or paper. Such devices are used in cameras, for example, where flexibility and space savings make it difficult to use rigid circuit boards or hand wiring. The technology is expected to expand into new products.

Sources: USF, Times wires, Wikipedia

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Madhusmita Bora can be reached at mbora@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3112.