Scientists just developed a new type of “electronic ink” that could lead to solar cells as cheap as roof shingles and electronic touchpads that cost under ten dollars. The new material was developed by the University of Minnesota‘s College of Science and Engineering and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and it’s composed of silicon nanocrystals – which are non-toxic and can be printed on inexpensive plastic substrates.
To create the ink, scientists developed a new method to ensure a good shelf-life and enhanced electrical properties. They used an ionized gas called ‘nonthermal plasma’ to produce the silicon nanocrystals and cover the particles in a layer of chlorine atoms. The chlorine helps to incite a reaction that when paired with some widely used solvents produces a silicon ink. This new material does not need the soap-like ligands, or molecules that most other silicon inks require. The process also allows for the “doping” of films, meaning that deliberately planted impurities in the nanocrystals assist in increasing their electronic conductivity. The ink is able to move electrons at a rate of 1,000 times that of non-doped substances.
This process for producing electronics is almost like screen printing a number on a softball jersey,” said Lance Wheeler, lead author of the study published in Nature Communications and a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering Ph.D. student.
The research is will pave the way for making cheaper renewable technologies and mobile devices which will be particularly advantageous to those living in developing nations who lack access to clean and cheap sources of power.