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Where Will Paper Electronics Find Success Next?

February 21, 2012 By Dr. Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx
CAMBRIDGE, UK—Feb. 21, 2012—Electronics and electrics on/in paper are being used for security, safety, crime prevention, brand enhancement and merchandising applications. Cost, weight or bulk remain potential problems, so conventional electronics in paper products are being replaced with printed electronics.

According to IDTechEx analysis in its new report—titled “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 $30 million 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.

There are 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 formulated with materials other 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 a 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.

Conversion efficiency is only 0.1 percent, but huge areas can be viable and the conversion 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.


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