Using Your 2D Printer For Electrical Circuits

Silver nanoparticle ink is fast becoming a miracle material for applications from solar energy to electronics.

In the latest discovery from researchers at Georgia Tech, the University of Tokyo and Microsoft Research, scientists have developed a method by which they can rapidly – and cheaply – print out working electrical circuits using nothing more than a standard inkjet printer and off-the-shelf materials.

The development has made it possible for anyone with a run-of-the-mill, inkjet printer to produce working electrical circuits in around a minute.

Silver nanoparticle ink is injected into empty printer cartridges and then used to create “instant inkjet circuits,” a series of conductors on rigid or flexible materials, which should help tune the prototyping skills of non-technical and novice hacker users.

According to Gregory Abowd, a Professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, unlike the typical method used to print conductive patterns, conductivity in this latest process can be created in just a few seconds – and without the need for special equipment.

“We believe there is an opportunity to introduce a new approach to the rapid prototyping of fully custom-printed circuits,” Abowd says.

It is advances in chemically bonding metal particles which have allowed the team to use silver nanoparticle ink to print the circuits, and their approach works as it avoids problems associated with thermal bonding, or sintering. The circuits can be printed on resin-coated paper or PET film, but the researchers say plain-old glossy photo paper was the best substrate for the circuits.

At this point, they say the process doesn’t work with canvas cloth materials or magnet sheets.

The primary investigator on the project, Yoshihiro Kawahara, an Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo, sees a variety of applications where the circuits would save time and money.

“The method can be used to print circuit boards, sensors and antennas with little cost, and it opens up many new opportunities,” Kawahara said.

The team simply optimized commercially available tools and materials including printers, adhesive tapes and the silver ink, then used desktop drawing software and even photocopies of a drawing to produce a working circuits.

The circuits can be attached to electronic components (using conductive double-sided tape or silver epoxy adhesive) and that means a full-scale prototype can be created in a matter of hours. They say the circuits could easily be used to quickly prototype simple calculators, thermostat controls, battery chargers or a wide array of electronic devices.

“Using this technology in the classroom, it would be possible to introduce students to basic electronics principles very cheaply,” said Steve Hodges of Microsoft Research.