Nano-thin, flexible touchscreens could soon be printed like newspaper

Photo: The RMIT researcher team

A nano-thin, ultra-flexible electronic material that could be printed and rolled out like newspaper, for the touchscreens of the future, has been developed by RMIT researchers.

The electronic sheets are readily compatible with existing electronic technologies and the touch-responsive technology is 100 times thinner than existing touchscreen materials.

Because of their incredible flexibility, the sheets could potentially be manufactured through roll-to-roll processing just like a newspaper.

Lead researcher Dr Torben Daeneke said most mobile phone touchscreens were made of a transparent material, indium-tin oxide, that was very conductive but also very brittle.

“We’ve taken an old material and transformed it from the inside to create a new version that’s supremely thin and flexible,” Daeneke, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT said.

To create the new conductive, atomically thin indium-tin oxide (ITO) sheet, the RMIT University-led team used a thin film common in mobile phone touchscreens and shrunk it from 3D to 2D, using a liquid metal printing approach.

An indium-tin alloy is heated to 200C, where it becomes liquid, and then rolled over a surface to print off nano-thin sheets of indium tin oxide.

“You can bend it, you can twist it, and you could make it far more cheaply and efficiently than the slow and expensive way that we currently manufacture touchscreens.

“Turning it two-dimensional also makes it more transparent, so it lets through more light.

“This means a mobile phone with a touchscreen made of our material would use less power, extending the battery life by roughly 10%.”

The research team have used the new material to create a working touchscreen, as a proof-of-concept, and have applied for a patent for the technology.

The material could also be used in many other optoelectronic applications, such as LEDs and touch displays, as well as potentially in future solar cells and smart windows.

“We’re excited to be at the stage now where we can explore commercial collaboration opportunities and work with the relevant industries to bring this technology to market,” Daeneke said.