Paper-thin product partnership
could create some thick profits

CHICAGO, Oct. 17, 2002 — Partner, partner, partner. That’s the best way to get a so-called disruptive technology to the point where it might actually disrupt something, according to Daniel Gamota, manager of the organic and molecular new products department at Motorola Inc.

Tuesday in Chicago, Gamota dissected Motorola’s strategy for managing the diffusion of a new technique that uses standard printing equipment and practices to print organic field-effect transistors (OFETs), using special electroactive inks. The presentation was part of the “Nanotechnology Business Roadmap for Industry,” a meeting that has drawn several hundred participants from industry, government and academia to talk about the industrialization of nanotechnology. Small Times Media is one of the meeting’s sponsors.

Printable OFETs are the kind of gadgetry that could make it possible to print instantly updateable newspapers (á la “Minority Report”), or (in a more present-day application) inexpensive radio-frequency tags for inventory control, which are highly coveted by the retail industry.

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Motorola estimates the market opportunity at around $300 billion, including “e-novelties” (like product packaging with animated features), displays, tracking tags, and security applications. Gamota predicted that printed transistors will start to turn up in the marketplace by 2005, whether it’s “in wallpaper, newspaper or a package of popcorn.”

Motorola, Dow Chemical and Xerox Corp. are partnering to commercialize printable OFETs, with the blessing of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. They’ve enlisted the participation of other academic and industrial partners, such as IBM, 3M Co., Lucent Technologies, DuPont, Siemens, University of California, Los Angeles, and Penn State University to educate the industry about the technology, participate in standards development and help promote acceptance.

Gamota said that for one company to do all the development on such a technology would be prohibitively expensive and too risky to bother. “Everybody should be able to win in this situation.”

The partnership is also calling on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the printing industry group Technical Association for the Graphic Arts (TAGA) to create standards for testing, device specification and manufacturing. While the standards will be based on those used in the rest of the electronics industry, existing silicon standards may not be adequate for measuring a production method so different from the usual lithographic techniques.

In August, IEEE formed a working group to develop a standard for evaluating the performance of OFETs. “The flexibility, light weight and low cost of OFETs suggest such uses as roll-up flat panel displays, smart cards and biometric sensors in the near term, and has the potential for radio-frequency tags for checking out groceries, tracing luggage at airports and tracking people at secure installations,” said an IEEE statement.

The standards group had its first meeting in September, and is basing its early work on procedures being used at Motorola and the University of Michigan.

The technique has the potential to be extraordinarily economical. A standard silicon transistor fabrication facility costs about $10 million, Gamota estimated, and the next generation of fab labs will run the industry about $40 billion by 2007. In contrast, a single facility to print OFETs would cost about $400,000, and a whole industry’s worth of facilities would probably run about $40 million by 2007. A standard web press can run 300 feet worth of transistors per minute.

Gamota said the partners are counting on being able to reuse existing techniques and equipment from both electronics fabrication and printing. “We’ve been able to print thousands of meters of transistors with a company that used to silkscreen T-shirts for concerts,” he said. Motorola then conditions the structures in the lab and applies semiconducting material.

Gamota predicted that the first applications for printable OFETs will be primitive and in the toy and novelty area where precision and longevity aren’t critical. “Find out what a 5-year-old child wants, enter that area and start creating revenue streams,” he said. “Holograms appeared first on cereal boxes and they were terrible. Then they got integrated into higher products as the quality improved.”

Gamota acknowledged that the only genuinely new element in the process is a nanoparticle suspension whose source and exact makeup he declined to divulge. Otherwise, he said, the technology has been around for awhile, and all it took was “people willing to sweat it out and put the whole process together.”

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