'Organic and large-area electronics' (OLAE) is focused on materials and devices built from organic carbon-based molecules that are able to conduct electricity. Because these are lighter, more flexible and less expensive than inorganic conductors, such as copper or silicon, they are a viable alternative for many electronics applications.
More significantly perhaps, their unique properties create possibilities for many new applications that would simply be impossible with standard inorganic materials. Organic electronics could lead to intelligent packaging, low cost radio-frequency identification (RFID) transponders, rollable displays, flexible solar cells, disposable diagnostic devices and printed batteries.
'The range of applications for OLAE is extremely diverse... we are probably only just scratching the surface of what organic electronics can do, and, to top it off, OLAE materials are more cost-effective to manufacture and more environmentally-friendly than traditional electronics,' explains Herman Schoo, a senior research fellow at Dutch research organisation TNO.
Dr. Schoo coordinated the Polymap* project to help ensure funding for OLAE research is distributed and used as effectively as possible within the European research community. Supported by EUR 600,000 in funding from the European Commission, the project team helped to establish an ERA-Net Plus network. This will build cooperation and coordinate funding streams from national governments and regional organisations. They also set up an online database to maintain up-to-date information on OLAE research and provided support and training workshops for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) active in this technology.
'Organic light-emitting diodes' (OLEDs) are the most common commercial application of the technology. They are behind the bright, ultra-high-contrast screens in high-end portable devices, and, increasingly, are replacing inorganic LED and standard lighting in homes and buildings.
But other organic electronic materials are also being used for flexible displays and 'electronic paper;' for 'smart glass' that can switch from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button; for new types of semiconductors; for ultra-thin printed batteries; for smart clothing; and for flexible photovoltaic panels that can cover entire buildings.
Much of the pioneering work on organic electronics has been led by European researchers ever since Henry Letheby, a British analytical chemist created a partially conductive organic material by anodic oxidation of aniline in sulphuric acid in 1862. Today, innovative European companies such as Nanoident, PolyIC, Polymer Vision and Philips are working on devices, while leading materials suppliers such as Degussa and Merck are actively involved in R&D.
'Europe - particularly European academia - continues to lead R&D in organic electronics. We want to make sure we maintain and strengthen our competitiveness in that area,' Dr. Schoo says.
The team's efforts were closely coordinated with three other EU-funded projects working in the OLAE domain: Opera, Prodi and Polynet. Together, the four projects are called the 'Quadriga' projects.
'We began by analysing funding across Europe for OLAE research and, unsurprisingly, found it to be very fragmented with little to no coordination between the research programs of different countries and organisations. Often, we found that money was being invested in the same sort of research in more than one country - that is simply not efficient, in fact it's wasteful,' Dr. Schoo says.
The Polymap team sought to reduce this multiplicity of research through better coordination and collaboration between researchers and funding programs.
'Surely it is better to pool resources into projects that lead to world-class results than having many overlapping projects that produce mediocre outcomes,' the Polymap coordinator emphasises.
The OLAE+ ERA-Net Plus network made an important step in improving the use of resources. Launched with the involvement of eight countries, it is continuing to grow and has received around EUR 18 million in funding from national research programmes including EUR 6 million from the European Commission. The money is being used to fund pan-European OLAE research from leading research groups.
Meanwhile, the Polynet team also focused on helping technology SMEs strengthen their position in the OLAE sector or break into the field for the first time, organising a series of workshops and providing technology and training support, and guiding them on how to access public and private sector funding. The Polymap online database, an open Wikipedia-style website now maintained by the Organic and Printed Electronics Association (OE-A), was set up primarily with SMEs in mind to allow easy access to up-to-date information on OLAE research, which smaller companies may not have the resources to uncover for themselves.
'Though much of the OLAE research in Europe is carried out by academia, SMEs have an important role to play,' Dr. Schoo notes. 'Crucially, the barriers to entry into the OLAE industry aren't as large as in traditional electronics. For one thing, the start-up costs are substantially lower than the billions needed to set up a factory to produce silicon-based devices for example.'
Organic electronic devices are most commonly produced via printing or coating processes that use relatively cheap equipment and comparatively little energy, making OLAE devices not only cost-effective but also more environmentally friendly.
In Dr. Schoo's view, efforts to coordinate research funding such as those carried out in the Polymap project should help Europe maintain its competitive edge in OLAE R&D, but the biggest challenge remains in putting European OLAE technology on the map commercially. Currently, only around 25 % of the major companies worldwide that make printed transistors and memory, crucial for the future of organic and large area electronics, operate in Europe.
'Go to a conference or look at a scientific journal and you'll see that the big advances in research in the field are taking place in Europe,' Dr. Schoo says. 'Industry, on the other hand, is still not doing enough... but there is still time for that to change.'
Polymap received research funding under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
* 'Technology roadmap of processes and materials for organic electronics'.