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Can the 'silver bullet' of printing revolutionize electronics?

By Matt Ford, for CNN
If the Xerox silver ink technology catches on, could it be used for counterfeiting?
If the Xerox silver ink technology catches on, could it be used for counterfeiting?
  • New silver ink technology developed by Xerox could revolutionize computers
  • Tech has been in development for years and seen as 'silver bullet' for printed electronics
  • Could allow devices to be printed from ink jet printers
  • Some wary of Xerox claims and impact of application of technology

(CNN) -- Scientists are claiming to have found the "silver bullet" that will enable the cheap, easy printing of electronic components and transform the way we use computers.

Researchers at Xerox say that a new silver ink technology will allow them to add computer power to a wide range of plastics and fabrics, and pave the way for a remarkable range of new products.

"This is not a replacement for silicon -- it will expand and open up the opportunity for new devices and electronic applications where silicon electronics is too expensive, too heavy or too complex to use," Paul Smith, laboratory manager for printable electronics research at Xerox Research Center Canada, told CNN.

"For example, large screens could become so lightweight and robust that they could be easily transported and would be much more affordable. [We could see] PDA's becoming more light, thin and affordable... wearable electronics and displays and low-cost RFID applications such as automatic check-out at your grocer or large signage in retail outlets that are easily updated by the minute if necessary.

"You can image a little display on your prescription bottle that will warn you if you've taken your medicine already or remind you of the correct dosage.

"Or how about large scale image displays that will allow you to watch the Super Bowl life size?

"Perhaps hospital gowns where a display is in the fabric that provides up-to-the-second vital stats for the patient -- easily seen by the nurse at a glance. These will all be much more affordable and able to be manufactured using printable electronics."

Because of this remarkable potential, printed electronics is one of the fastest growing tech industries in the world. The number of companies involved is doubling every 18 months, according to the organizers of the Printed Electronics USA conference, who say the emerging market could be worth $300 billion.

"By many independent accounts, printed electronics will become larger than the silicon integrated circuit (IC)industry in 20 years," Raghu Das, CEO of IDTech X, the company organizing the Printed Electronics USA conference, told CNN.

"Unlike silicon IC manufacture, printed electronics manufacture will be much more diversely spread because of the ease to manufacture the devices using much cheaper equipment and materials.

"Massive new markets will be created because so many new things are possible... Investors/manufacturers should be looking at the space now to capitalize on the sectors opportunity."

However, until the Xerox development was announced, managing to get both the silver ink/semi-conductors correct was a problem that many companies were fiercely competing to be the first to solve.

Printed electronics will be very cool for lots of novel applications and new product design form factors.
--Saul Griffiths, inventor

"This could be a big breakthrough in terms of 'completing the puzzle' -- the silver ink is one more piece that makes the whole system come together and overcome barriers to implementation," professor David Harrison, a world-renowned expert on the subject at Brunel University, told CNN.

"However... there are many other competing commercial printed silver inks, and it is difficult to see... exactly what the Xerox innovation is."

Inventor Saul Griffiths also remains skeptical.

"People have been working on this forever, and I can't really tell what's fluff and what's reality about this... silver low temp inks were common place in 2000, so Xerox's claim seems odd," he told CNN.

But the Xerox scientists are adamant they have found the "silver bullet" -- and interested parties can take a look for themselves.

"The Xerox innovation is that this silver ink has been developed to melt at a very low temperature, which allows it to be able to be printed on a wide range of substrates including flexible plastics. This is also something that is unique to the Xerox materials," said Smith.

"[This] semi-conductive ink... is a significant breakthrough -- but also the fact that all three materials were developed to work together to create the circuit (the conductor, semi-conductor and the dielectric) can all be printed using a fairly standard ink-jet printer without the need for clean-room environments is also unique.

"To manufacturers it is important because they don't need to use billion dollar fabrication facilities to print these plastic-based electronic components.

"The materials announced are actually printed using fairly standard ink jet printers."

However, those imagining the availability of 'printable electronics' using ink-jet printers will lead to a rise in bedroom engineering might be disappointed.

"We don't expect this technology will enable a 'Do-it-Yourself' printable electronics industry," said Smith.

"The actual design of electronic components is complex. While these materials will make the manufacturer of these circuits less costly and easier to do -- the application developers will still have some work to do to enable these new and novel applications."

However, low cost does mean big implications for emerging economies

"Developing nations will have an opportunity to be a player in the manufacture of this new technology because the manufacture of these components will no longer require billion dollar investments," said Smith.

"They would be able to perhaps set up lower cost plastic electronics fabrication plants that will enable them to gain revenue from becoming developers of plastic electronic devices."

However the tech is employed the potential is enormous.

"Printed electronics will be very cool for lots of novel applications and new product design form factors," says Griffiths.

"My concern is that it will make even cheaper quite toxic and energy intensive products that we'll put into everything, and we'll compound the challenge of 'technology trash'... It'll be a mixture of good and kitsch and environmentally bad outcomes."