Editorial Feature

Touchscreen Computers on Any Surface

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A nanotechnology breakthrough from engineers at Trinity College Dublin could lead to touchscreen computers appearing on almost any flat surface, including anything from milk cartons and tabletops, according to a new report in the journal Science.

Using conventional printing methods, researchers put together graphene nanosheets – a kind of carbon so thin, many consider it to be two-dimensional – with two other nanomaterials called tungsten diselenide and boron nitride to create a working transistor.

“We felt that it was critically important to focus on printing transistors as they are the electric switches at the heart of modern computing,” study author Jonathan Coleman, an investigator at Trinity’s School of Physics, said in a news release. “We believe this work opens the way to print a whole host of devices solely from two-dimensional nanosheets.”

The potential uses for this kind of technology appear to be limited only by the imagination. Food packaging could show warnings that its contents are getting too warm or are about to spoil. Wine labels could alert your mobile device when its bottle has reached the ideal temperature. A window pane could show the forecast or be programmed for holiday light displays. Next-generation paper currency could be embedded with a wide range of security features.

“In the future, printed devices will be incorporated into even the most mundane objects such as labels, posters and packaging,” Coleman said. “Printed electronic circuitry (constructed from the devices we have created) will allow consumer products to gather, process, display and transmit information.”

The study team claimed that two-dimensional nanomaterials can contend with the various other materials used for printed electronics at the moment. As opposed to some other materials used in this field, the study team said their two-dimensional nanomaterials have the capacity to yield cheaper and higher performance devices. The researchers said their study has shown that conducting, semiconducting and insulating two-dimensional nanomaterials can be used together in intricate devices.

Printed electronics have evolved over the last three decades based primarily on printable carbon-based materials. While these materials can readily be converted into printable inks, the results have shown to be somewhat unstable and have well-identified performance restrictions. Hence, researchers turned alternative materials, like carbon nanotubes; however, these materials have also be revealed to have restrictions when it comes to either functionality or how they must be produced.

While the functionality of printed two-dimensional devices cannot yet compare with advanced transistors, the team said there is a lot of room to enhance performance past the current cutting-edge for printed transistors.

The process to print two-dimensional nanomaterials described in the study is via a scalable technique of generating two-dimensional sheets of graphene, boron nitride, and tungsten diselenide in liquids. These nanosheets are flat nanoparticles just a few nanometres thick but hundreds of nanometres across. Significantly, these nanosheets made from various materials have electronic properties, particularly the ability to conduct, insulate or act as a semiconductor. Therefore, these novel materials can be the building blocks of electronic devices.

The researchers said their liquid processing technique is particularly beneficial in that it produces large amounts of high quality two-dimensional materials in a form that is simple to process into inks. The study noted the potential to print out circuits at very low cost, which could expedite a variety of applications.

In another printable electronics development, a team of European researchers recently unveiled technology they said was biocompatible, meaning printed electronics based on the technology could be implanted as medical devices. The device unveiled by this team was made from graphene, hexagonal boron nitride (hBN) and semiconductor transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs).

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