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Organic electronics – the technology of the future?

Do you need a new TV in the not-too-distant future? Then simply go to your ink-jet printer, define the size, insert a foil and press the start button. After some time you can take out your new rollable TV on the other side. All this is done with the help of organic electronics. We're not there yet, but...

Most electronic components and devices are based on semiconductor materials. Unlike the conventional inorganic semiconductor technology which is made of silicon, organic electronics mainly consist of plastics (polymers) with different levels of conductivity. Natural compounds with carbon such as dyes also have semiconducting properties.

Advantages and disadvantages

While silicon processing requires temperatures above 1000 °C and clean room conditions, "plastic electronics" merely require room temperature. Comparatively speaking, the manufacturing methods are environmentally friendly and save resources. In contrast to the current time-consuming and thus expensive technology, organic semiconductors can be mass-produced at a low cost. The availability of raw materials is practically unlimited. In a wafer-thin layer, the electronic components can be applied to the different carrier materials. They easily and flexibly adapt to surfaces, requiring only little space, and are virtually unbreakable. It is even possible to produce coatings with ink-jet printers using electronic ink or with classic printing methods. A complete test printer already exists. It is possible to print transistors, LEDs, solar cells, sensors, batteries and displays. Another option is to integrate barely visible electronic circuits into fabrics and wallpapers.
The low electrical conductivity is a disadvantage and currently limits possible applications. Research and development of new polymer combinations to increase conductivity cost money and time. There is also too little detailed evidence on long-term durability.

State of the art

The technology has already reached market maturity and is used efficiently with organic LEDs (OLED), for example as flexible display films, as could be found in some mobile phones in recent years. OLEDs allow to generate thin illuminated surfaces with different colours. When switched-off, they can also be transparent. Big German lamp manufacturers have already launched the first products, for example a panel light of 80 mm diameter and 2.1 mm depth. Recently, the first prototypes of thin light foils could be seen at innovation fairs. So-called "thin-film solar cells" are processed in the field of organic photovoltaics (OPV). Low degrees of efficiency of about 8 % suggest even more potential: transparent films with solar cells on mobile phones, laptops and other mobile devices could considerably extend battery life. Besides marketable RFID chips and price tags, a team of researches has even created microprocessors that are made of polymer films. The first organic lasers for optical measuring and for batteries have left the research lab.

The future

With the consistent refinement of organic electronics, numerous application possibilities for everyday use will arise. For example, one could think of illuminated wallpapers for room lighting or as a variant with an imprinted TV. Windows made of transparent solar cells could provide houses with energy. Screens and laptops could be printed and rolled. There are hardly any limits to the imagination.

Further information on organic electronics.
© Fraunhofer ISE
ITO-free organic solar cell module on a flexible substrate. (Source: Fraunhofer Institute ISE)
ITO-free organic solar cell module on a flexible substrate. (Source: Fraunhofer Institute ISE)