Nano-thin flexible touchscreens could be printed like newspaper

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The price cycle of new technology is often a repetitive one: From eye-wateringly expensive, only available to the early adopters and the big spenders, to radical price slashes that open up a product to the market at large a few years down the line. But what about a radical new technology that is both revolutionary and cheap at the point of release? According to researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Australia, the touchscreens of the future may not just be thin and flexible but far cheaper than current offerings on the market.

Researchers at RMIT claim to have developed a touch-responsive technology that is 100 times thinner than current touchscreen materials, flexible enough to be rolled up like a tube.
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The researchers created a new conductive sheet by using a film that is common in mobile phone touchscreens, indium-tin oxide, a film that is transparent and conductive but brittle.

The film was shrunk from 3D to 2D using liquid metal chemistry, heating the indium-tin alloy to 200c to make it into a liquid, rolling over a surface to print off ‘nano-thin’ sheets of indium tin oxide.

The 2D ‘nano-sheets’ have an identical chemical makeup of standard alloy films with a different crystal structure, being compatible with existing electronic devices with the potential to be manufactured through roll-to-roll processing like newspaper due to its flexibility.

The new sheet absorbs 0/7% of light, compared to the 5-10% average of standard conductive glass, being able to made more electronically conductive by adding more layers. The research team have speculated that the material could be used in a variety of optoelectronic applications, including LEDs, touch displays, solar cells and smart windows.

Dr Torben Daeneke, lead researcher, RMIT explained: “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. A touchscreen made of our material would use less power, extending the battery life by roughly 10%.”

The researchers have used the material to create a working touchscreen prototype, with a patent for the technology now pending.

Daeneke said: “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.

“There’s no other way of making this fully flexible, conductive and transparent material aside from our new liquid metal method. It was impossible up to now – people just assumed that it couldn’t be done.”

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