Last updated January 30, 2020 at 11:06 am
It was previously the stuff of science fiction, but now flexible and transparent touchscreens could soon be a reality.
Why This Matters: The future is here.
An ultra-thin, ultra-flexible electronic material that can be rolled like a newspaper might sound like something from a science fiction novel. But, Australian researchers are well on their way to turning these touchscreens of the future into reality.
They’ve developed an ultra-flexible touch-responsive technology that is 100 times thinner than existing touchscreen materials and so pliable it can be rolled up like a tube. The research has been published in the journal Nature Electronics.
They suggest the material could be rolled out to use as LEDs and touch displays, as well solar cells and smart windows in the future.
Bend it, twist it, and made cheaper
To create the touchscreen, the team used a thin film common in mobile phone touchscreens and reduced it from 3D to 2D, using liquid metal chemistry.
The nano-thin sheets are readily compatible with existing electronic technologies, they say, and are so flexible they could potentially be manufactured through roll-to-roll (R2R) processing.
“We’ve taken an old material and transformed it from the inside to create a new version that’s supremely thin and flexible,” says lead researcher Torben Daeneke.
“You can bend it, you can twist it, and you could make it far more cheaply and efficiently that the slow and expensive way that we currently manufacture touchscreens.
“Turning it two-dimensional also makes it more transparent, so it lets through more light. This means a cell phone with a touchscreen made of our material would use less power, extending the battery life by roughly 10%.”
“Could be made in a home kitchen”
Creating the new type of atomically-thin indium-tin oxide (ITO) doesn’t require expensive or specialised equipment, Daeneke says. In fact, “it could even be done in a home kitchen”.
An indium-tin alloy is heated to 200 degrees Celsius, becomes liquid, then is rolled over a surface to print off the very thin sheets of indium tin oxide.
These 2D nano-sheets have the same chemical make-up as standard ITO but a different crystal structure, giving them new mechanical and optical properties.
As well as being flexible, the material absorbs just 0.7% of light, compared with 5-10% for standard conductive glass. To make it more electronically conductive, you just add more layers.
“There’s no other way of making this fully flexible, conductive and transparent material aside from our new liquid metal method,” Daeneke says.
“It was impossible up to now: people just assumed that it couldn’t be done.”