Researchers create rollerball-pen ink to draw circuits

Jun 28, 2011 by Bob Yirka report
Image: Wiley

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two professors from the University of Illinois; one specializing in materials science, the other in electrical engineering, have combined their talents to take the idea of printing circuits onto non-standard materials one step further by developing a conductive ink that can be used in a traditional rollerball ink pen to draw circuits by hand onto paper and other porous materials. In their paper published in Advanced Materials, team leads Jennifer Lewis, Jennifer Bernhard and colleagues describe how they were able to make a type of ink from silver nanoparticles that would remain a liquid while in the pen, but would dry like regular ink once applied. The pen could was then used to draw a functioning LCD display and an antenna.

To make the ink, the team produced by reducing a silver nitrate solution along with an acid to prevent the particles from growing too large. Afterwards the acid was removed and the of the ink modified using hydroxyethyl cellulose to get just the right consistency. The result is a sort of that dries on contact and which can be used to conduct electricity, hence its ability to be used in the creation of a circuit.

Silver pen has the write stuff for flexible electronics
University of Illinois engineers developed a pen with conductive silver ink that can write electric circuits and interconnects directly on paper and other surfaces. Credit: Bok Yeop Ahn

Up till now, most research on printing circuits onto non-standard materials, such as paper, have been done using inkjet printers or even airbrushes. This new approach would allow circuits to be drawn quicker and much cheaper, or even on-the-fly, as no other hardware is needed. Such a low cost device might create a market for throwaway circuits or even super cheap batteries. Paper was used in the study because it is considered to be the most suitable non-standard material for printing circuits due to its wide availability, low cost, ability to be bent and shaped, and the fact that it is biodegradable.

Lewis noted that the paper used in study was folded after testing to see how the circuit would hold up, and discovered it took folding several thousand times before the ink pathways were broken. She also noted that other materials besides paper could be used, such as wood or ceramics.

Silver pen has the write stuff for flexible electronics
This is a flexible array of LEDs mounted on paper. Hand-drawn silver ink lines form the interconnects between the LEDs. Credit: Bok Yeop Ahn

The team next plans to look into other types of materials that might be used to make conductive ink for their pen, hoping to open up the door to all kinds of inks that can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

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More information: Pen-on-Paper Flexible Electronics, Advanced Materials, Article first published online: 20 JUN 2011. DOI:10.1002/adma.201101328

Abstract
Pen-on-paper flexible electronics are fabricated using a conductive silver ink-filled rollerball pen. This approach provides a low-cost, portable route for fabricating conductive text, electronic art, interconnects for light emitting diode (LED) arrays, and three-dimensional (3D) antennas on paper.

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User comments : 9

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technodiss
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
this is really cool stuff. I want to the electronics lab projects that could be done with this ink. something so cheap could be used in schools as well. now we just need different inks with different properties to draw some kind of processor like a blinking poster or a crystal radio receiver with speaker.
CouchP
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
All that is needed is P, N and conductor type pens, say P=Green, N=Blue and Conductor = Red. That would be amazing!!
DGBEACH
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
I bought this stuff over 20 years ago from Radio Shack, for repairing circuit boards...nothing new there!
zaai
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
Yes, same here. That is how I made my first circuits in the 70s. The more things change the more the stay the same :)

That said, a paper substrate is kinda new.
skibum210
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
Can you solder to it? Conductive epoxy is expensive.
TheCyndicate
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
They have sold this in Radio Shack, for my entire life, lol. You can mess with the liquid, and get it to conduct on clothing and other material. I have been doing it for a long time, lol. Write a story about me LOL
Eikka
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
I bought this stuff over 20 years ago from Radio Shack, for repairing circuit boards...nothing new there!


The difference is that the particles in the silver laquer are too large to put through a ballpoint pen. It would clog the pen, or other devices such as inkjet nozzles.

That said, you can also paint a circuit with solder paste and then heat it to make traces of tin.
mrlewish
not rated yet Jul 05, 2011
Silver ink, that comes in a ball point pen, that can be found in arts and crafts stores does the same thing.
ctBuckweed
not rated yet Jul 06, 2011
This looks great for prototyping circuits. But what if the wires have to cross one another? Use tape for cross-overs I guess...