Engineers already use flexible electronics in a wide range of applications that consumers know well, such as TVs with curved screens or smartphones with folding components.
However, 3D printing is another advancement that lends itself well to flexible electronics. That’s because 3D printers can deposit electronic components directly onto flexible materials.
But, will these flexible electronics ever reach the point of mass appeal? Let’s take a look at some of the work in progress to determine how those innovations and others might change how people use technology.
Printing Hydrogels Embedded With Flexible Electronics
Hydrogels are common in the health care industry. One of the most well-known ways to rely on them is to enhance wound care. Because a hydrogel is mostly water, it’s an excellent solution for keeping a person’s injured area adequately moist.
Researchers at Seoul’s Korea Institute of Science and Technology recently came up with a way of using transfer printing to insert electronics directly into hydrogel materials without melting them or otherwise changing their characteristics.
In the lab, the scientists demonstrated their achievements by creating a glove with a network of flexible circuits and pressure sensors. It detected finger movement and even the wearer’s wrist pulse.
Since this innovation is still in the early stages, it’ll be a while before people start seeing electronics regularly placed into hydrogels like this. But, it’s not difficult to see the abundant potential use they offer.
For example, doctors might use them for better monitoring of patients at home. If the electronics indicate excessive warmth near a deep gash, they might notify a physician and patient of the possibility of an infection.
Developing Electronic “Skin” to Improve Tactile Awareness
When people select options by tapping the screens of their smartphones, ATMs or tablets, they interact with so-called soft keys or virtual buttons. These are usually convenient because the choices differ depending on how a person interacts with the content.
For example, a smartphone’s on-screen keyboard typically looks different depending on if a user is chatting with a friend or using the phone’s calculator.
But, soft keys don’t work for many people with visual impairments. That’s because they can’t feel the buttons and use their sense of touch to determine a button’s location and function. However, a researcher at the University of Sydney is developing an ultra-flexible sticky tape that has electronic circuits printed onto it.
If the idea works as planned, people with disabilities could wear the tape wrapped around their fingers, like a second skin. The tape is only half the thickness of a human hair and could send the wearers feedback via vibrations as they engage with their environments.
One of the reasons why this technology could gain popularity is because it allows people to get information in non-audible ways. For example, a visually impaired person may not want sensitive content on a screen read out to them for others to hear.
The tape could have viable applications in the gaming world, too, especially because the thin nature of the tape wouldn’t interfere with finger dexterity.
Making Semiconductors With New Materials
Silicon comprises the vast majority of semiconductor films in today’s flexible electronics. It’s not the best semiconducting material, but it’s the one that’s most abundant. However, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made progress that could facilitate the exploration of using materials in place of silicon.
They said that films made from materials including gallium arsenide and lithium fluoride perform better than silicon. Moreover, their methods are more cost-effective than previous techniques used for crafting films from those other materials.
Indeed, the high production costs hindered past efforts to depend on things other than silicon for semiconductor films. But, the work at MIT could make expenses less problematic.
Potential Barriers to Increased Popularity
The examples covered here indicate why printed, flexible electronics could become even more applicable to today’s society. But, of course, some things could temporarily restrict the anticipated rise of this technology.
Scientists may have difficulty scaling up enough to meet marketplace demands while keeping their processes cost-effective. Or, they may discover unforeseen problems when their products get used outside of laboratories. If either of these things happens, the costs of these high-tech and bendable electronics may be too high for many tech enthusiasts to accept.
Or, it could take longer than planned to make the products available to people who want them — which ties into the scalability aspect. However, it’s clear from the highlights here and those seen elsewhere in the news that there’s a bright future for flexible electronics.
It’s impossible to say what level of popularity the technology might get. But, scientists are making headway in figuring out and testing applicable use cases. That’s crucial for further development.
Megan Nichols is a STEM writer who enjoys discussing the latest technologies and scientific discoveries. She regularly writes for sites like IoT Times and Real Clear Science. Megan also writes easy to understand technology articles on her personal blog, Schooled By Science. Keep up with Megan by subscribing to her blog or following her on Twitter.
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