Is that thing you are folding a chip?

Printed electronics makes it possible to obtain flexible chips on plastic, which can be adapted to almost any surface, and for less cost than the silicon chips. PEC4, an association where the CSIC participates, will boost research and help companies to develop applications.

Printed electronics makes it possible to obtain electronic and photonic devices on organic polymers using conventional printing techniques. Image: PEC4/CETEMMSAPEC4 (acronym of Printed Electronic Cluster) is the first Spanish association in this area. It is composed by the technological center CETEMMSA, the CSIC’s Instituto de Microelectrónica de Barcelona (IMB-CNM), the Parc de Recerca UAB, the Centro de Accesibilidad e Inteligencia Ambiental de Cataluña, and the Centro de Investigación en Metamateriales para la Innovación en Tecnologías Electrónica y de Comunicaciones (the last two centers belong to the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona).


The goal of the cluster is to promote research and development with this new technology, and to interact with companies in order to help them in applying printed electronics for their solutions.

The printed electronics sector is one of the most innovative and with great expectations: according to some previsions, in 2020 it will generate sales for $60 billion.

Digital circuit made by the CSIC’s Instituto de Microelectrónica de Barcelona and the Centro de Accesibilidad e Inteligencia Ambiental de Cataluña, in the TDK4PE Project.

What printed electronics can do…

Printed electronics can develop applications in diverse sectors, such as building, sport, automotive, press, marketing, textile, packaging, in a short production time and with very reduced production costs.

The key is in the possibility of printing the electronic and photonic devices on organic polymers and using conventional printing techniques and conductive or semi-conductive ink.  It is possible to print components like resistors, capacitors, transistors… -all the electronic components present in convencional circuit- on a flexible polymer, which afterwards can be easily applied on other flexible objects or with different shapes (clothes, containers, packs or others).

Possible applications are flexible solar panels. Their performance is not as good as the silicon ones but they can take advantage of more solar radiation as they can be placed on irregular shapes (roofs, walls, windows, cars,  street furniture…).

Another promising area is food packaging. Tags and labels with new functions can be developed. For instance, labels with sensors to control the cold chain has been kept or to detect contamination in food). Or for high-end products (perfumes, clothing, wines and spirits…), labels that certificate better the authenticity and prevent copying.

More examples are the clothes that give some extra functionality (changeable color, adjustable temperature, therapeutic nanoparticles…). Or printed batteries, which in the future could be even rechargeable, to be used in books, publicity or other printed products that add sound or lights. Biomedical sensors and flexible displays are also applications of printed electronics.

Some applications. Left: Smart poster developed by CAIAC and TMB. When a smart phone is placed on, it shows the best route. Right: interactive rug developed by Sensing Tex. The rug is used to control the music played by the connected system.

Flexibility and the capacity to adapt to different shapes that would be impossible for silicon chips are the main advantages of printed electronics. The other is the reduced costs. Lluis Teres, scientist at the Instituto de Microelectrònica de Barcelona (IMB-CNM)  explains that “silicon microelectronics have many benefits but they are expensive. The design and production of prototypes is a slow process that involves certain risks. It is also expensive. The costs only compensate when the production volumes are high which is not always necessary and in many cases these high volumes are feasible only for very big companies.” 

With printed electronics the costs are not so high, which allows the production of fewer chip units and enables small companies to find business opportunities.

On the contrary, with printed electronics the costs are not so high, which allows the production of fewer chip units and enables small companies to find business opportunities. Besides, unlike the conventional electronics whose production is concentrated in a few companies in South-East Asia, in the case of printed electronics it is expected that many small and medium-sized companies from very different places will produce applications. That means better adaptation for production scales at a local and specific level.

…and what it cannot do…

A printed chip can have thousands of transistors, which is far below the tens of millions of transistors on a silicon chip. So, the performance and functions of a silicon chip are well above the ones offered by printed circuits.

That’s why some complex functions made by silicon chips cannot be made by printed chips. In this case, it is possible to combine both technologies: printed electronics that include a small silicon chip for some specific function. Actually, the combination of these technologies is a reality today.

They are, so, different areas with different applications. The big chance of printed electronics is not to contend for displacing the silicon electronics but to be a complement and offer therefore new possibilities that were impossible until now.

“A new flexible, fungible and recyclable electronics is born” says Lluis Teres, “as the materials used are organic ans everyday new possible applications appear”.

PEC4 is a member of the OEA (Organics Electronics Association) and the 3NEO group (Plataforma Espanyola de Nous materials, Noves propietats i Nous processos de Tecnologies d'Impressió i indústries afins). It also participes in the European project COLAE (Commercialising Organic and Large Area Electronics).