A radio made completely of plastic? We might see them in the near future, claim scientists. In 1977 researchers discovered that certain types of plastic can conduct electricity, just like metals. Initially these plastics remained a curiosity, but by improving their electrical properties researchers have now opened the way for their use in a large number of electric and electronic devices.
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Not only will the price make these devices attractive but they will also be more environmentally friendly. When used for lighting, light-emitting plastics will consume less electricity. Plastic materials will also stimulate the use of solar energy because the manufacture of plastic solar cells will be much cheaper.
Scientists belonging to a European research consortium, ONE-P (Organic Nanomaterials for Electronics and Photonics project) have recently described how they developed a great variety of plastic materials that will boost the new and promising industrial field called "Plastic Electronics". Europe is already a leader in this field, which has a current market value of 1 billion Euro.
The three-year project, which was started in January 2009 with a grant of 18 million Euro from the European Commission and a total budget of 26 million Euro, involved 28 organisations and around 200 researchers from 11 European countries. About half were researchers from universities, while the other half came from both the chemical and the electronics industry, and from research institutes, covering a whole spectrum of research. "For example, teams from the University of Mons or the University of Bologna worked on theoretical computations while others worked on the creation of new materials and their applications," says Véronique de Halleux, a researcher at the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She is also ONE-P's Consortium Technical Officer.
The ONE-P project ended in December 2011 with an impressive list of achievements, including the submission of more than 200 research papers and the filing of 12 patents, reports de Halleux. "We have really progressed in the understanding of these new plastic materials and how to apply them in electronics," says de Halleux.
This research shows that these new products will improve the quality of life of EU citizens. Electricity produced by solar cells will become more affordable because, instead of the expensive use of silicon they can be manufactured with a new, high-volume technology resembling the printing of newspapers. Called roll-to-roll processing, the solar cells are deposited with an ink-jet like device on continuous flexible film.
The consortium also investigated many other devices based on plastic that will soon enter our everyday life. Biosensors will detect asthma, glaucoma, and toxic gases. And soon you won't be able to miss the "use by" date on your food packaging. The package will beep at you. Instead of the ink-jet printer printing a date it will print a tiny electronic circuit that sets off an alarm.
Research in a new type of light-emitting device (OLED), comparable to the familiar control lights (LEDs) on many of our appliances but made entirely of plastic, will result in cheaper and more efficient lighting. Also light-producing film that can cover walls or windows will revolutionise our homes. "This research is especially important for European industry, which could be very competitive in the production of efficient light sources in the future," says de Halleux. Large industries will also benefit from environmentally friendly production processes resulting from this research.
One important aim of the project was the spawning of a new, high-tech industry in Europe, where we can expect a high return on investment in research. An interesting result was the creation of a large number of small new research projects and industries. Also, new collaborations between existing industries emerged, joining manufacturers of chemicals and electronics. "People met and decided to work together," says de Halleux. This also happened between researchers from universities and industry. "This was very important to us from the beginning; we looked for ways to stimulate the transfer of basic research at universities towards applications by industry," she says. "This can create a solid economic basis."