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It's Electrifying

Conference on conductive polymers looks ahead to commercialization

by Marc S. Reisch
November 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 44

CrossLink light-emitting polymers are used in Ecolab vending machine.
CrossLink light-emitting polymers are used in Ecolab vending machine.

Not every scientific conference ends with a sign flashing the words "ICE COLD BEER." But the 11th International Seminar on Commercial Applications for Inherently Conductive Polymers, held in Pittsburgh last month, had an enterprising edge that earlier seminars did not.

It has, after all, been about 30 years since Alan G. MacDiarmid, now a University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor; Alan J. Heeger, a professor of physics and materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and retired chemistry professor Hideki Shirakawa of Japan's University of Tsukuba did their pioneering work on electrically conductive polymers. The three won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 for their efforts.

Earlier seminars were largely tutorials on the properties of unique polymers with the ability to conduct electrical charges, noted Matt Aldissi, president of conductive polymers research firm Fractal Systems and the organizer of many of the earlier sessions. But at this seminar, tutorials were kept to a minimum.

Instead, academicians from Carnegie Mellon University, UCLA, Drexel University, and Old Dominion University, discussed their work to improve the processability, durability, and utility of conductive polymers. Scientists from a number of companies outlined their own novel technologies. The firms they represented include polyaniline supplier and Neste spin-off Panipol, Bayer's H. C. Stark unit, technology licensor Ormecon, poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) developer TDA Research, thieno[3,4-b]thiophene developer Air Products & Chemicals, and organic light-emitting polymer developer Cambridge Display Technologies.

A few marketing executives even discussed practical applications, including using electrically conductive polymers in batteries, capacitors, light-emitting diodes, transistors, photovoltaics, metal-corrosion control, conductive adhesives and inks, static dissipators, electromagnetic interference shielding, radar/microwave absorbers, and sensors.

"IT INITIALLY blows the mind that plastics, more often thought of as insulators, can act like metals," said Shawn P. Williams, chief technology officer of Plextronics, a two-year-old spin-off from Carnegie Mellon. Using conductive polymers such as poly(3-substituted thiophenes), Plextronics is developing materials for applications such as solar cells, lighting, transistors, and radio-frequency identification tags (RFID). "This is disruptive technology," Williams said. Just as vacuum tube development led to early computers, and silicon developments started the modern personal computer revolution, conductive polymers will lead to a revolution in plastic electronics, he predicted.

Work at Plextronics could lead to printable solar cells that can be inked onto cell phones, laptops, cars, and buildings to make solar power widespread and affordable. RFID tags printed with conductive inks could allow an entire shopping cart of groceries to be instantly scanned at the supermarket checkout counter.

Electronics engineer Bill Matthews said he has seen an upsurge in interest in conductive polymers from printed circuit board makers in Asia. Matthews, who is managing director of Invint, a Scotland-based intellectual property development firm, acknowledged that printed circuit board makers are conservative. But a number of "fast-moving niches in that market are receptive to alternative approaches."

Matthews suggested that polymer-printed circuit boards will become more attractive as conductive polymer printing gets closer and closer to industrial printing techniques. Especially attractive is a 50% reduction in imaging costs compared with boards made through conventional photolithography, coupled with no significant manufacturing effluent.

And even the National Institute of Standards & Technology is getting into the act. The government standards agency funded an organic electronics project this year, said Dean M. DeLongchamp, a postdoc at NIST. It did so "based on the realization that organic electronics are likely to have a substantial impact within 10 years. Our goal is to be able to transfer measurements to industry with data benchmarked from unique NIST methods."

Boeing Satellite Systems, Honeywell, Kuraray, Lubrizol, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, and DuPont all sent observers to the seminar. Sigma-Aldrich is following an upsurge of interest in the industry, too. Product Manager Sean Dingman said the firm just published an updated brochure, "Organic Semiconductors for Advanced Electronics," to make research customers aware of new materials.

The conductive polymers market "is a huge, unwieldly beast," Invint's Williams said. "We're just snipping at the periphery." With commercialization work still to be done, it's not yet time to stop for that ice cold beer.


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