Wake Forest University nanotechnology researchers are working on an electronics discovery that could become a home-décor dream for interior designers and homeowners.
The researchers’ work with organic semiconductor technology could make it possible for a 70-inch TV screen to retract just like a projector screen or window shade.
It also could place transparent solar cells on building windows, metal car roofs and bus stations. Other possibilities are electronic displays in previously inaccessible spaces, wearable electronics and pens that contain retractable video screens.
The researchers are working with colleagues at the University of Kentucky and other universities on the technology, which relies on organic plastics’ thin, lightweight and conformal nature. Their main focus is studying the relation between the physical structure and electronic properties of organic semiconductor crystals.
Oana Jurchescu, an assistant professor of physics at Wake, and graduate student Yaochuan Mei are leading the local research efforts at the university’s Center for Nanotechnology for Molecular Materials.
Nanobiotechnology is described as the science of developing materials at the atomic and molecular level, then using them to develop products and devices.
Mei and Jurchescu’s research has been nominated for the 2013 Brilliant Ten recognition by Popular Science magazine and has appeared in the April 4 edition of the journal Advanced Materials.
Jurchescu is reluctant to provide a timeframe for when the research could yield consumer products, saying her role is helping Mei to accelerate and stabilize the process.
But she said that eventually “TV screens could be as large as you would want, roll them out when you want to and would have touch-screen capacity – at a much lower cost than they are produced at now.”
Consumers may be tempted to write off organic semiconductor research as something years away from being commercialized, but Samsung in January introduced technology it is calling “Youm” that uses organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays that are flexible, bendable and – a potential blessing for smart phone owners – nearly unbreakable.
“Dr. Jurchescu’s work on organic electronics is potentially important to the development of light and bendable displays and to applications that may be able to mate electronic systems to biological ones,” said Keith Bonin, the chair of the university’s physics department.
“Her latest research is just one step in the process of making these ideas a reality.”
The possibility of developing organic semiconductor material has been studied for more than 40 years, Jurchescu said. Going in this particular research area became more possible with conductive polymer breakthroughs in 2000.
Electronic products use inorganic semiconducting materials, such as silicon, to get the proper conductivity to make them work on a large and reliable scale.
Organic semiconductor material has the potential to offer better performance, Jurchescu said.
The inorganic semiconducting materials are processed in a vacuum at high temperatures. Jurchescu said this makes them expensive and limits their potential applications. Organic semiconductors are not only inexpensive to process but can be applied to any medium at room temperature.
Here’s how the technology is projected to work:
Organic thin-film transistors are now being deposited by methods such as inkjet printing, drop casting or spin coating. These methods produce good electrical properties, but are limited to small area applications.
The inkjet printer strategy is similar to what researchers at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine having been using to “print” human cells into the form of organs and tissues for at least six years.
However, that method is considered impractical for making a wall-sized, flexible video screen since the current maximum developable space is a 3-by-3 inch cube, Jurchescu said. That, in itself, is considered as the highest performance organic thin-film transistors for this method.
Jurchescu said products could be developed with those current limitations, but they would be expensive to make and potentially not price competitive with existing electronics.
Meanwhile, organic spray-on techniques can be applied to large areas but generally have poor performance when compared to their small-area counterparts.
Jurchescu said the spray-paint method – which the researchers have been studying since 2010 – “is a potentially game changing technology” for several reasons. Mei’s potential breakthrough involves a high-performance organic semiconductor “spray paint” that can be applied to large surface areas without losing electric conductivity.
“Fast deposition at up to a hundred feet per second may allow their production in large volumes and at low cost per unit area,” Jurchescu said. “Hopefully, spraying this material will be as simple as creating graffiti on a wall.”
The research comes at a time when Wake Forest and most universities are putting more emphasis on commercializing projects to provide additional revenue.
For example, other Wake Forest nanotech researchers have produced an electricity-producing technology, known as Power Felt, which the New York Times Magazine listed in June as the top of 32 “innovations that will change your tomorrow.”
That technology is being used with clothing and other textile products to capture the 100-to-120 watts of heat that the human body produces at any given time and harnesses it to recharge electronic devices, such as an iPod.
The act of commercializing life-science research can be as complicated as getting people - or computers - to speak the same language.
Some researchers tend to struggle to let go of their research. Others may want to let go, but may not have the business acumen to commercialize what they know.
At the same time, universities and academic medical centers are looking for additional revenue from biotechnology and nanotechnology resources to help deal with a tightening financial squeeze as the federal government provides fewer research grants and grant competition stiff-ens.
David Carroll, the director of the Wake Forest nanotechnology center, said establishing research and commercialization collaboration is a challenge, but one that can be overcome by helping researchers and business officials understand each others' needs and goals.
“Unlike software, or service industry technologies, many of the products that form tomorrow’s technologies – lighting, solar, green-power generation, building materials, automotive and heavy equipment, communications infrastructure – they all require the development of new materials to do things we couldn't do yesterday,” Carroll said.
Jurchescu also represents another area of focus of university research efforts, that being securing federal grant money to pay for her work with limited university funding.
She recently secured a $400,000 National Science Foundation Career award that she is using toward the spray research. According to her resume, she has received $2.75 million in research grants since her arrival at Wake Forest in 2009, mostly from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and NSF.
The NSF career award is given to the nation’s top junior faculty who demonstrate excellence as teacher-scholars. Jurchescu will offer a new course focused on carbon-based materials and devices, tentatively scheduled for the 2014-2015 academic year.
She also plans to give demonstrations on nanotechnology to children at Nanodays at Sciworks, and host research projects in her lab for high school students and students from Forsyth Tech Community College as well.
Additionally, Jurchescu will continue to mentor graduate and undergraduate students who are conducting research and pursuing careers in science.
Jurchescu has received several recognitions from Wake Forest for her research.
Bonin said Jurchescu is a very active faculty member whose research has been recognized as outstanding by her peers. “This latest result is just another confirmation that she and her group are serious contributors to progress in the field of organic electronics,” Bonin said.
When asked about her accomplishments, Jurchescu deferred praise to Mei and other colleagues for their research persistence.
“We look at this as our contribution to a much bigger contribution to society,” she said.