Even though the printing industry is likely to shrink, it's expected to become promisingly flourishing in the world of electronics with "printed electronics".
Organic and printed electronics have been used for smart packaging and magazines.
The National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec) has set up the Thailand Organic & Printed Electronics Innovation Centre (Topic) to promote innovation in organic and printed electronics, collaborating with the public and private sector, and universities.
Printed electronics is a set of printing methods used to create electrical devices on various substrates. Printing typically uses common printing equipment or other low-cost equipment suitable for defining patterns on material, such as screen printing and inkjet. Electrically functional electronic or optical inks are deposited on the substrate, creating active or passive devices, such as thin film transistors or resistors.
According to Nectec principal researcher Adisorn Tuantranont, trends in electronics are moving towards green technology. Both printed electronics and organic electronics are the two technologies that enable electronics to become thinner, lighter and more flexible.
Organic electronics is a branch of electronics dealing with conductive polymers, plastics or small molecules. It is called organic electronics because the polymers and small molecules are carbon-based. This contrasts with traditional electronics, which relies on inorganic conductors and semiconductors, such as copper and silicon, respectively.
Printed electronics is expected to facilitate widespread, very low-cost, low-performance electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, decorative and animated posters, and active clothing that do not require high performance.
Printed electronics is related to organic electronics in which one or more inks are composed of carbon-based compounds. Printed electronics specifies the process and can utilise any solution-based material, including organic semiconductors, inorganic semiconductors, metallic conductors, nanoparticles and nanotubes.
Researchers at Nectec have studied the technology for four to five years figuring out whether such technology is feasible in Thailand. Nectec talked to the Fine Arts Department, which has wide-scale experience in printing and owns publishing houses, from small to large, and it found that the printing industry in Thailand is facing competition from new media such as e-books, lessening the demand for traditional printing.
"We then tried to drive the electronics technology by moving the printing industry towards electronics printing in order to increase the added value to the industry," said Adisorn.
Researchers at Nectec successfully synthesised graphene-based conductive ink last year. The ink has five-times higher electrical conductivity than a typical one of the same cost.
Adisorn explained that graphene, a single layer of carbon atom in a closely packed honeycomb lattice, is the basic building block for other carbon nanomaterials.
He also pointed out that the qualifications of the conductive ink in printed electronics are thin and robust film, high flexibility, standard drying/curing/fusing equipment and ease of processing with existing printing technology such as screen print, flexo and gravure printing.
Nectec has given a licence to Innophene Co, Ltd to produce and commercialise the product. The graphene ink of Nectec has the same performance as commercially available products but a different patent filing process. It is an electrochemical process, which means it is cheap, causes no waste, guarantees no contamination, and is suitable for various applications.
Currently, Nectec and its consortium partners are developing the applications, including disposable printed biosensing, printed solar cells, printed batteries, printed RFIDs and printed Oleds. Citing IDTechEx research, Adisorn noted that the global market for printed electronics in 2020 is forecasted to be US$55 billion.
Considering the entire supply chain of printed electronics, the upstream industry which covers the synthesis of conductive polymers, inks, organic electronic materials, super molecules, carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles is already in Thailand. Nectec is also working with the midstream industry, which includes the printing industry, assembly of RFIDs, organic sensors, logic and memory, thin film batteries, organic solar cells and Oleds, with companies such as Sinsakorn Printing Industrial Estate, Smartrac, and Innophene.
The downstream industry for products to consumers includes smart packaging, smart fabrics, flexible electronics, smart appliances, functional environments (lighting, electronic wallpaper, smart home), entertainment (visuals, toys, greeting cards, disposable electronics), and printing (e-paper). "These are the groups that have a large number of producers in Thailand and now it's time they can make use of the technology," the researcher noted, adding that Nectec is now approaching book publishers, especially those who publish children's books that typically use copper wire for conducting electricity, to offer printed electronics using the safer conductive ink instead.
For consumers, organic and printed electronics will allow cheaper and environmental friendly goods.