Following our discussion last week of the race to commercialize Graphene-based products, we continue our roundup of material science advances making their way from the laboratory workbench to the consumer marketplace. In this age of electronics and microbiology, it’s not surprising that some of the most exciting material science discoveries in the laboratory are at a very small scale. Indeed, many new breakthrough materials can be deployed as thin film coatings which can be sprayed, painted, or even printed on surfaces or as thin film sheets that can be bent or molded into flexible shapes.
The “Film Stars” of Laboratory Material Science
We’ve dubbed these the new discoveries the “Film Stars” of laboratory material science. Many of these “Film Stars” have already made significant contributions to our personal health, our food supply and our efforts toward energy conservation. Lifestraw is a great example. This revolutionary product is a personal water filtration system packaged in the form of a straw tube. Each Lifestraw can purify 1,000 liters of water, enough to last an individual a full year. It utilizes very thin film membranes which can filter out bacteria and viruses at the molecular level (as small as 16 microns) to protect us from disease pathogens found in the water supply. Waterborne disease is a worldwide problem, but particularly troubling following natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, or in areas which lack a modern water supply infrastructure, such as large regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
Thin Film Polymers Keep Fruits and Vegetables Fresh Longer
Most fruits and vegetables stay fresher if you can prevent condensation buildup inside the packaging during packing and shipping. Using thin film polymer technology built into the packaging material itself, it’s possible to passively control the internal humidity with what is known as ‘equilibrium modified atmosphere packaging’. This thin film packaging technology (known by its acronym EMAP) passively controls the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels inside the package to ensure maximum freshness and nutrient content. Stepac is a leading brand in this field.
Other thin film packaging systems for fruits and vegetables are designed to control concentrations of naturally forming gases, like ethylene, which serves to signal many types of fruit to begin the ripening process. You may know that enclosing some types of fruit, such as peaches, in a closed paper bag will make them ripen faster. The reason this works is that peaches emit ethylene gas, and a higher concentration of ethylene, in turn, triggers the ripening process. Material scientists specializing in packaging fruits and vegetables have developed a range of thin film packages which have laser cut microscopic holes that give ethylene gas a one-way exit, which inhibits ripening and increases shelf life. Thin films are custom calibrated for specific fruits, and the process can be reversed as well by utilizing thin film packaging which encourages fast ripening when desired.
Hydrophobic Thin Film Coatings Keep Wind Farm Turbine Blades Running Clean
Thin films in the form of coatings are also making an important appearance in new technologies like green, renewable energy production. One example is a wind farm application. Dirt and grime, which build upon wind turbine blades, can reduce the overall efficiency of energy production. Newly developed hydrophobic coatings on the turbine blades automatically repel water buildup and the associated accumulation of dirt and grime. This reduces maintenance costs and downtime needed to stop the wind turbines for frequent washing.
Thin Films Also Deliver Cost-Effective Energy Savings for Your Home
If you’ve wondered why so many new office buildings under construction seem to have glass windows with a slight green tint, it’s usually a tip off that the glass incorporates a special thin film UV coating designed to help keep the building cooler during the summer. That’s great for new construction. But could you apply this technology and get similar savings in your existing home without resorting to the expense of replacing all your old windows with modern energy conserving glass? The answer is yes, thanks again to recent advances in thin film technology. A recent industry study conducted in Florida indicates that the most cost-effective way to save on energy for cooling is to apply reflective and UV barrier film to existing residential windows.
What Film Stars in the Laboratory Today Will be in the Headlines Tomorrow?
Now let’s turn our attention to the world of consumer electronic products. If you are an Apple ‘fan boy’ or ‘fan girl’, you know rumors have been flying for months leading up to Apple Computer’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference that takes place next week in San Francisco. Rumor mills have run rampant with predictions that Apple will introduce a so-called iWatch. Per industry insiders, this watch may or may not serve as a platform for biometric health monitoring applications.
Realistically, we realize an iWatch may or may not make an appearance next week. Nonetheless, we’ll take the bait and jump in with some of our own analysis leading up to a possible iWatch announcement by looking at some of the underlying technologies under development in laboratories around the world that would be helpful to create a revolutionary wearable consumer product. We will look at ways discoveries in the material science laboratory would contribute toward developing a breakthrough wearable consumer electronics product. To leap past today’s generation of fitness devices, like the FitBit, the industry will need to deliver enhancements to four key technologies:
- Small powerful battery with a long life and flexible form factor.
- Exceptionally small but powerful electronic processor with flexible circuit boards.
- A bright, colorful display that is impact resistant and also flexible.
- Biometric and other sensors to record health information and integrate it with a system.
Needed: Small Powerful Battery with a Long Life and Flexible Form Factor
There’s a race underway by research laboratories trying to find new ways to incorporate batteries into wearable electronic devices. Recently material science laboratory researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai demonstrated weaving tubular lithium batteries into a cloth material at a very small scale. This technique had to account for the relatively large expansion and contraction of the battery as it heated up during the charge/discharge cycle.
This looks very interesting, but it’s still probably too bulky for a small electronic device like the rumored iWatch. Closer to home, Rice University researchers in Houston have announced discovery of a thin film energy storage device attached to a polymer backing that can be flexed 1000 times. Their findings, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, indicate they have discovered a material that’s thin, flexible and holds a charge either like a capacitor (fast discharge rate) or a battery (slow discharge rate). Of course this research is still at the laboratory research stage, but it looks promising. We’ll be excited to learn more about these discoveries by Rice graduate student Changsheng Xiang and postdoctoral researcher Gunuk Wang.
Needed: Exceptionally Small But Powerful Electronic Processor with Flexible Circuit Boards
Rapid growth in computing power has long been predicted by Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. Naysayers are always predicting that eventually Moore’s Law will no longer apply as electronic devices so small that they can’t shrink any further. That’s one of the reasons that a recently announced discovery in nanotechnology circuitry is so interesting. Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) outside of Knoxville, Tennessee created an electronic wire only three items wide. This discovery, of course, is also still in the pure research phase.
Apple, like its competitors, is moving aggressively in the semiconductor market. Business analysts have taken note of Apple’s steady acquisition of computer chip design and manufacturing companies — as well as acquisition of talented chip designers and researchers. Recent Apple company acquisitions include P.A. Semi in 2008, Intrinsity in 2010, Passif Semiconductor in 2013 and Prime Sense, also in 2013. Thin film flexible circuitry boards are also of great interest across the industry. Georgia Tech recently demonstrated a functioning ‘strain gauge’ which was printed onto a metal surface. And in Australia, a group has started a Kickstarter campaign to build a 3-D printer that prints circuit boards.
Needed: A Bright, Colorful Display That is Impact Resistant and Flexible
Industry analysts are going crazy trying to figure out what tricks Apple might have under its sleeve in the world of display technology. There are rumors that Apple may be moving away from Corning’s signature Gorilla Glass, the tough glass covers used in the iPhone. Instead, tantalizing reports indicate Apple is investing heavily in the manufacture of protective screens made of sapphire. This rumor is corroborated by a patent that Apple got for embedding sapphire display covers in a technology called ‘liquidmetal’, which (ironically) is actually a form of metallic glass.
What about flexible displays? Samsung has already demonstrated flexible display technologies at important trade shows, so we know that this exciting technology is coming to market soon. But perhaps an iWatch would feature traditionally fixed display — like a watch — rather than a bendable surface. As we mentioned earlier, long battery life is key.
So what about different display technologies? Here Apple watchers have identified key investments and acquisitions by Apple that indicate it might deploy an organic light emitting diode (or OLED) technology. It’s very thin, can be flexible, and it does not require an energy draining back-light. But Apple also recently acquired micro-LED maker LuxVue Technologies. Their technology offers lower power consumption than traditional LEDs. Yet micro-LEDs still offer superior color fidelity than OLED, which might sway which direction Apple takes down its new technology roadmap.
Needed: Biometric and Other Sensors to Record Health Information and Integrate it with a System
Finally, much of the hype around the iWatch has to do with its potential as a computer platform that could unleash a new wave of “must-have” applications in the biometric measurement and healthcare markets. Are health apps going to be ‘the next big thing?’ The industry has seen some big successes (and some disappointments) with the “FitBit” and its competitor the Nike FuelBand. These so-called personal activity trackers can help measure your heart rate and other health and fitness goals.
If Apple jumped in, it would have a huge advantage due to its large ‘app’ ecosystem. And signs are pointing in this direction. Business analysts have taken note that Apple recently hired a large number of biometric researchers in this field. So we’ll have to see if Apple makes a move into the biometric health monitoring arena with a product like the rumored iWatch. This would be a useful tool for those of us wanting to improve our fitness by monitoring our exercise. But as one doctor recently commented: measuring the heart rate and activity level is the easy part. The Holy Grail is to monitor what patients eat and how much they eat!
Formaspace is Here For You
We’ll be looking forward to any announcements coming from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference next week. In the meantime, if you work in the field of materials science or any other laboratory field, you should give us a call at 800.251.1505. We can help you make your laboratory, research facility, manufacturing facility or office run smoother and more efficiently with our custom technical furniture solutions. We look forward to speaking with you.