It’s made from carbon and it’s one atom thick. It has a diameter of about a nanometer – approximately 50,000 times as small as the width of a human hair, and the same diameter as that of DNA. It’s about to make big waves in the electronics industry and beyond. It’s a carbon nanotube. Yes, carbon. And yes – it is an incredibly small wire. Hence, carbon for electronics is a very big deal.
Replacing inorganic materials
Electronics as we know them are based on inorganic materials: copper, silicon or the transparent electronic material called indium-tin-oxide (ITO). Devices incorporating these materials are made through high temperature processes in multi-billion dollar facilities. In contrast, Unidym builds networks or films of nano-scale wires called carbon nanotubes (CNTs) using a simple and inexpensive solution-based process, much like printing a newspaper. Such films, which can be made to mimic the properties of metals or silicon, lie at the heart of the products being developed by the company. Some applications of this technology can be used here and now, others will usher in what is being referred to as a new paradigm of electronics, involving printed, plastic or large-area macro-electronics.
Small wire, big potential
Unidym is pioneering technology that is using films of CNTs to produce components for high-performance, cost-effective electronic products. The company holds full patent coverage for CNTs, which boast electrical conductivity comparable to that of metals, surpassing that of any polymer by several orders of magnitude, and able to carry significantly more current than the best metals. CNTs are also physically flexible, do not react with most chemicals and resist abrasion or damage from day-to-day use. Their excellent electrical, optical and mechanical properties and the abundance of carbon make them a highly promising material for many current and future applications.
Products made simpler, cheaper
Unidym’s product line builds upon the growing trend in the electronics industry to replace today’s expensive materials and manufacturing processes with simpler, lower-cost production techniques similar to those found in the printing industry. Films of CNTs, called nanonets, serve as an electronically conductive medium for a variety of applications where optically transparent films are essential. The films offer competitive alternatives to ITO in a variety of applications. What’s more, while ITO requires deposition methods that are largely based on high temperature processes that are incompatible with a large variety of substrates, Unidym’s films are made a room temperature and are fully compatible with plastics and other materials.
Exciting application potential
Unidym’s highly transparent and electrically conducting films offer significant benefits for a wide variety of applications:
- Touch screens are in greater demand and require increasing durability and optical clarity. Networks of carbon nanotubes have the required transparency, electrical attributes and incredible flexibility and robustness to ensure devices with long lifetimes
- Solar cells Inexpensive, large-area fabrication techniques will make Unidym’s material architecture particularly relevant to thin film and organic solar cells
- Flat panel displays require highly transparent conductors with low electrical resistance
- Light emitting diodes and solid-state lighting such as organic or polymer-based light sources require transparent electrodes made from CNTs for energy efficiency
Products for the future
Films which are tailor-made to resemble silicon serve as the backbone of novel printable or flexible electronics. The new paradigm on which these products are based involves replacing expensive starting materials and complex semiconductor manufacturing processes with low-cost solution-based deposition techniques like ink jet printing and roll-to-roll coating. Unidym is developing active electronic devices utilizing the company’s platform technology. Electronic magazines, displays that roll up and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags top the list of potential applications of the technology.
In all, the market for transparent conductive films and coatings exceeds $1 billion per year and is growing between 15% and 25% annually. Independent experts forecast the opportunity to grow to $30 billion by 2015, and to as much as $250 million by 2025