The market has seen its first glimpses of flexible electronics that have come out in recent years. These innovations bring to mind current generation foldable smartphones and curved OLED TVs, but these devices are just scratching the surface of some remarkable innovations happening in material science. The market for flexible electronics was 37 billion USD in 2019 with the expectation for that to just about double by 2030. The ability of a device to stretch, bend, and change at the component level exponentially increases its ability to integrate into our daily lives.
Flexible electronics are technologies that enable flexibility in manufacturing, as well as flexibility as a characteristic of the final product. In order to get flexible properties while retaining function, new and innovative materials must be implemented. Silicon, while helping miniaturize technology to what we have today, is rigid and limits the form factors a device can take.
“…Conventional silicon chips that we have in today’s computing devices are great at delivering complex functionality in a box of electronics, but they are really not well-suited to embedding into the kind of thin flexible form factors that we see in everyday objects.” - Scott White, CEO of PragmatIC
Polymers are at the heart of flexible electronics due to new coating and printing techniques that have enabled manufacturing at compatible temperatures. Current flexible replacements for silicon do not have the processing capacity of their counterparts but innovations on that front are slowly making their way to market.
In the manufacturing processes for normal electronic components, 30% or more of the materials used to create them is wasted. This is in part due to the methods used in silicon-based manufacturing processes. Flexible technology typically involves printing, meaning manufacturing utilizes additive processes. This potentially creates less waste and a safer, less energy-intensive fabrication process in comparison to current generation electronic manufacturing.
A boon for the flexible electronic market is that the materials that comprise most of its research are widely available. The polymers and organic/carbon-based materials used in flexible electronic supply chains can alleviate the burden on some rare-earth resources. An example would be utilizing graphene or carbon nanotubes in lieu of indium, a scarce resource commonly used in displays.
There are issues still facing the mass proliferation of flexible electronics, mostly due to the age of the technologies involved. Device integration, taking all of the technologies required to create a singular, practical device, has mostly been limited to displays and smartphones nowadays. Also, any flexible electronics created would still be competing in the marketplace with its silicon competitors who are also improving year over year.
Even at the molecular level, adhesion of conductive inks to polymeric substrates is tricky and may necessitate additional steps in the manufacturing process. The longevity of barrier films, conductive inks, as well as other ‘moving parts’ is an issue too as consumers expect reasonable lifetimes to their devices.
Large scale manufacturing also poses a significant hurdle. Roll to roll printing, while coveted as a high-volume, low-cost solution to electronic manufacturing, has a myriad of technical difficulties that need to be solved before flexible electronics are a part of everyday lives.
Nonetheless, flexible substrates, conductive inks, and organic electronics have opened the door to truly revolutionary technologies. Below you will find startups working to bring that future to bear, and the innovations they have made to that end.
Currently, the easiest to understand and one that most people are familiar with, displays have been first on the chopping block when it comes to making them flexible. This industry is also where you are currently seeing the most experimentation. In fact, 80% of the flexible market, roughly 25 billion USD, was in display technology alone in 2018. After the advent of OLED technology, replacing the glass substrate with something lighter and flexible was the next step in creating truly flexible displays. As this market accelerates, expect more of the real estate in your skylines, advertisements, and shopfronts to be adorned by flexible OLEDs.Amorphyx- Amorphyx is bringing a new materials platform to the thin-film electronics market. One based on amorphous metals and high-K dielectrics. One that enables new devices and a new level of performance from existing devices.
Kateeva- Their inkjet printing manufacturing equipment solution enables flexible and large-size OLEDs to be produced over large areas and in high volume – with longer lifetimes, higher yields and lower production costs.
Kyulux- One of the big problems with OLEDs is getting their phosphorescent emitters to convert electricity to light with 100% efficiency. 2nd-Gen phosphorescent emitters achieve an IQE of 100%, but require doping by heavy metals – which limits the molecule design freedom. Kyulux’s TADF (Thermally Activated Delayed Fluorescence) emitters, first developed in 2012, achieve 100% IQE without any rare metals.
NanoCnet - Compared to typical silver nanowire, the synthesis process of NanoCnet’s nanomaterial is faster and happens at room temperature which is essential for low-cost manufacturing. The material cost of NanoCnet’s electrodes is 30% lower than typical silver nanowires and 50% lower than ITO films.
Graphene Frontiers - Their technology allows device manufacturers to replace multiple conductive and encapsulating layers with a single nanometer-scale thin film, enabling the cost-effective, R2R production of next-generation organic electronics.
Batteries have been a pain for our society because it seems we can never catch up with our energy demands. This has led to design teams to make unwelcomed compromises, sometimes utilizing 30 - 40% of the final product for battery space. While flexible batteries may not be the holy grail, being able to alter the shape and size of batteries just adds one more form factor you can control when bringing your device to market.Alchemy Metal - Alchemist Metal Inc. manufactures metal and nanofiber films. They have a fantastic, patent-pending battery material that will transform the EV, robotics and display market. Pilot projects include materials for new battery designs: Si anode, Li metal, Zn metal.
NanoEMI- nanoEMI is a startup that developed composite materials for shielding electromagnetic radiation. They claim to be solving 3 market problems: electromagnetic compatibility, user safety, data safety.
Ateios- Ateios focusing a new generation of medical wearables, specifically smart transdermal patches, has demonstrated the first all-printed, flexible battery with a superior areal capacity of 2.5-mAh/cm2 over 30 cycles.
Blue Spark Technologies, Inc.- Blue Spark Technologies, Inc. develops flexible, printed, "green," proprietary power source solutions for battery-powered printed electronic systems. The company was founded as Thin Battery Technologies with patented technology and technical leadership from Energizer (Eveready Battery Company).
Bright Volt- Bright Volt’s patented and proprietary technology increases the reliability, stability, and unprecedented safety and abuse tolerance of the cell. BrightVolt PME™ enhances the direct bonding of electrode components, enabling thinner layers and eliminating dead weight which results in highest energy density in the industry. This approach also makes the manufacturing process easier and more efficient.
Conductive inks have a lot of promise in the radicalization of the manufacturing process. Instead of etching copper to desired specifications, conductive inks are applied with an additive process, limiting waste streams and cutting the material requirements of antiquated processes. Areas of exploration include in-mold electronics, EM shielding, and stretchable circuits.Liquid Wire Inc. - Liquid Wire produces a printable conductor called MetalGel that can be patterned with standard graphical procedures into interconnects, antenna, pressure and strain sensors or other electroactive structures. With room temperature processing, no loss of conductivity through fatigue and linear strain response, the company's high conductivity fluids enable radical innovations in electronic form factors.
RadiSurf ApS - develop unique molecular adhesives – nano coatings - for strong and tight bonding of polymers (e.g. plastics and coatings) to metal and glass. Their coatings consist of nano polymer brushes, produced via a disruptive patented method.
PragmatIC- PragmatIC is a world leader in ultra low cost flexible electronics. Their unique technology platform delivers flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) that are thinner than a human hair and can be easily embedded into everyday objects.
Kuprion- Kuprion specializes in the formulation, manufacture and licensing of nanocopper inks and pastes. Their international team of scientists and engineers possess extensive industry experience and knowledge to provide in-depth technical support to integrate our material into your products.
Copprint - Copprint's Nano Ink offers an affordable alterternative to silver conductive ink for a range of applications including: RFIDs printed on paper, touch panel bezel contacts, printed antennas, printed PCBs, heaters & defoggers, fabrics, 3D printing of conductive patterns, batteries and many other printed electronics applications.
While much less flashy than their OLED counterparts, flexible sensors open up a variety of novel methods for collecting data. These flexible sensors are lightweight and robust, providing users with improved capabilities not found in conventional sensors and their ability to take non-planar shapes shouldn’t be understated. In tandem with other technologies like printing and the use of polymer substrates, the granularity of data we will be able to achieve in the near future with flexible electronics is truly awe-inspiring.MesoMat- MesoMat has developed novel plastic based sensing fibers which measure strain in material systems. These piezo-resistive fibre, combined with custom electronics and software, provide a complete strain sensing platform which can provide real-time in-situ monitoring.
Novarials Corporation - Novarials Corporation has a technical focus on the large scale and cost effective manufacturing and processing of high-quality and precisely-engineered one-dimensional nanomaterials.
TacSense- TacSense is a high-tech startup company that has developed the world’s most sensitive and flexible human sensing interfaces, known as the Flexible Iontronic Sensing (FITS) technology. The company strives to address global demands in various markets such as medical, consumer, robotic and automobile.
Imagine Intelligent Materials- Their value proposition is to bring real time structural health sensing and reporting systems for mining, buildings, roads, infrastructure using graphene. They manufacture graphene coatings for fibres and fabrics and devices that enable data to be collected and moved into the cloud. Delivering real time data showing changes in stress, temperature and moisture.
Reality AI- Reality AI is software for embedded machine learning using sensors in automotive, industrial, robotics, and consumer IoT products. For embedded use on commodity microcontroller systems, their patented approach delivers Edge AI inference that is: 100x faster, uses 1250x less power, and saves upto 600x on edge hardware - compared to similar solutions using deep learning.
In short, flexible electronics are starting to make themselves known and are slowly seeping their way into our daily lives. Here in Silicon Valley, big industry players are keenly aware of its possibilities and have begun probing their way into the startup ecosystem to gain a foothold on this market. Flexible electronics will enable even mundane things like walls, windows, and floors to become a part of our ever-connected grid. While this article didn’t cover all the topics where flexible electronics will be, rest assured we are on the precipice of some really interesting breakthroughs that will radically change how we interact with our world, and how it interacts with us.
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