Penn State's interest in flexible and printed electronics is not just theoretical. In October 2011, the University announced a multi-year research project with Dow Chemical Corporation. The project received $1 million in its first year, and will continue for at least five years.
Tom Jackson, Kirby Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering and a pioneer in flexible electronics research, is the principal investigator. Other team members include electrical engineer Chris Giebink, chemist John Asbury, chemical engineers Enriquez Gomez and Scott Milner, and materials science and engineering faculty Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Qing Wang, and Mike Hickner.
Dow is already one of the world's largest manufacturers of the sophisticated chemicals used to fabricate semiconductors and the flexible plastics that could replace the stiff circuit boards, silicon wafers and other rigid substrates currently used for electronic devices and their displays.
"Some Dow research leaders believe that printing electronics on plastic film is the low-cost way to go for many applications, and the manufacturers in the supply chain want to understand where the technology is heading and what the critical material requirements will be," explains Carlo Pantano, director of Penn State's Materials Research Institute.
Pantano had been keeping Dow up to date on Penn State's materials capabilities for the past decade. The multidisciplinary skills and tools required to advance flexible electronics are brought together at the new Millennium Science Complex, where faculty researchers and their students interact with one another in state of the art facilities for synthesis, fabrication and evaluation of electronic materials and devices.
"As they spoke with us, they realized we had people working on many of the relevant materials and processes, from organic and transparent semiconductors to low-temperature, low-cost nanofabrication," he says. "We have the breadth and depth to tackle this problem," he says.
If the partnership sounds ambitious, so is the challenge. Organic molecules, for example, conduct electrons more slowly than silicon. To boost organic transistor performance, researchers must better understand the roadblocks and discover ways to speed things up.
Then they must find a way to produce those organic semiconductors and integrate them with electrodes, capacitors, resistors, interconnects, and other circuit elements that can be manufactured reliably and at low cost.
Fortunately, Dow is a large, successful company, Jackson points out. "They are not telling us that they won't be able to buy groceries if the research doesn't come to fruition next year," he says.