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Paper Electronics' Next Step
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 | IDTechEx

Electronics and electrics on or in paper is being used for security, safety, crime prevention, brand enhancement, and merchandising. Cost, weight, or bulk are a problem, so conventional electronics in paper products is being replaced with printed electronics. According to IDTechEx analysis in the report, Brand Enhancement by Electronics in Packaging 2012-2022, the global demand for electronic smart packaging devices is currently at a tipping point and will grow rapidly from $0.03 billion in 2012 to $1.7 billion in 2022. The electronic packaging (e-packaging) market will remain primarily in consumer packaged goods CPG reaching 35 billion units that have electronic functionality in 2022.

Three Types of Paper Electronics

The very paper itself can be electronic or electrical. Secondly, electronics can be placed onto paper like the familiar talking gift card, which is increasingly printed to save space and cost. Thirdly, electronics and electrics can firmly buried in paper or operate by being on both sides of a paper sheet. 

Paper with Inherent Electronic Functions

There are many forms of paper made to have inherent electric functions, including the conductive paper of Kimberley Clark that can be patterned into heaters, antennas and the like. Photovoltaic panels made from a paper made from material rather than wood or cotton could become a cheap, easy alternative to traditional solar cells. Within a few years, people in remote villages in the developing world may be able to make their own solar panels, at low cost, using otherwise worthless agricultural waste as their raw material.

That is the objective of MIT researcher Andreas Mershin, leveraging a project begun eight years ago by MIT. Its Shuguang Zhang is senior author of the new paper along with Michael Graetzel of Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Zhang enlists photosystem-I molecules in plant cells that carry out photosynthesis. Zhang and colleagues them from plants, stabilized them and forms a paper layer to produce a photovoltaic current when exposed to light.

Even school laboratories can replicate this and make improvements. Efficiency is only 0.1% but huge areas can be viable and it can probably be improved tenfold or so to become useful in smaller areas if made fibrous. Accordingly, Mershin has now created a tiny forest of zinc oxide nanowires and a sponge-like titanium dioxide nanostructure coated with the light-collecting material derived from bacteria. This is a supporting structure carrying the electrons generated by the molecules down to the supporting layer of material to a circuit.

Professor Paul Yager, of the Bioengineering Department at the University of Washington, leads several subcontractors investing grants totaling up to $26 million to progress paper-based diagnostics. In two to three years, people miles from a laboratory may be able to cough, spit, or urinate on a piece of paper, upload the image on a cell phone and get lab-quality results for a range of illnesses. "Imagine what could happen if you knew what kind of virus you had," said Yager. "You would know whether you needed to go to the hospital or just go to bed."


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