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RMIT-Led Team Develops Spray-On Nanomaterial for Bendable Electronics

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A group of scientists from around the world is working on creating an inkable nanomaterial with the potential to be used as a spray-on electronic component. This technology could be used in the future for creating ultra-thin, lightweight, and flexible displays and devices.

Due to recent advancements in nanotechnology, zinc oxide has become a highly versatile material that could potentially be integrated into various components of upcoming technologies such as mobile phones and computers.

RMIT University’s Associate Professor Enrico Della Gaspera and Dr Joel van Embden led a team of international experts who reviewed the manufacturing methods, capabilities, and potential uses of zinc oxide nanocrystals, which has been published in the influential international journal, Chemical Reviews.

The co-authors of the study are Professor Silvia Gross from the University of Padova in Italy and Associate Professor Kevin Kittilstved from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States.

According to Associate Professor Enrico Della Gaspera from the School of Science, progress in nanotechnology has allowed for significant improvements and adaptations to the properties and performances of zinc oxide. This has resulted in the ability to produce tiny and versatile zinc oxide particles with exceptional control over their size, shape, and chemical composition at the nanoscale.

Associate Professor Joel van Embden, also from the School of Science, stated that this level of control can lead to precise properties for a variety of applications, including optics, electronics, energy, sensing technologies, and microbial decontamination.

The zinc oxide nanocrystals have the capability to be converted into ink and applied as an ultra-thin coating, with a thickness hundreds to thousands of times thinner than a typical paint layer. This process resembles ink-jet printing or airbrush painting.

Associate Professor Enrico Della Gaspera noted that these thin coatings have the necessary characteristics of high transparency to visible light and electrical conductivity, both of which are fundamental for developing touchscreen displays. Moreover, the nanocrystals can be deposited at low temperatures, enabling the creation of coatings on flexible substrates like plastic that are durable enough to withstand flexing and bending.

Zinc is an abundant and cheap element that is widely used by various industries. Zinc oxide has been extensively studied and gained interest in the 1970s and 1980s due to advancements in the semiconductor industry. With the advent of nanotechnology and advancements in syntheses and analysis techniques, zinc oxide has rapidly risen as one of the most important materials of this century. Zinc oxide is safe and biocompatible and is already found in products such as sunscreens and cosmetics.

The team is open to collaborating with industry partners to explore possible applications utilising their methods for producing these nanomaterial coatings. Zinc oxide nanocrystals have potential applications in various fields, including:

  • Self-cleaning coatings
  • Antibacterial and antifungal agents
  • Sensors to detect ultraviolet radiation
  • Electronic components in solar cells and LED
  • Transistors, which are the foundation of modern electronics
  • Sensors that could be used to detect harmful gases for residential, industrial, and environmental applications.

The team’s approach to using zinc oxide nanocrystals in industrial settings would require partnerships with the right organisations. However, scalability remains a challenge for all types of nanomaterials, including zinc oxide. The team would need to adapt the type of chemistry used and innovate the reaction setup to recreate the same conditions achieved in the laboratory but on a larger scale.

Additionally, the team needs to address the shortfall in electrical conductivity that nanocrystal coatings have compared to industry benchmarks. While the intrinsic structure of nanocrystal coatings provides more flexibility, it limits their ability to conduct electricity efficiently. The team and scientists worldwide are working to address these challenges and make progress. Collaboration with other organisations and industry partners is seen as an opportunity to solve these challenges. With the right partnership, the team is confident that these challenges can be overcome.

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