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  • Tiny Electronics Printed Fast
Jan 2008
PRINCETON, N.J., Jan. 30, 2008 -- A new technique for printing superthin lines quickly over wide areas could lead to larger, less expensive and more versatile electronic displays as well new medical devices, sensors and other technologies.

Solving a fundamental and long-standing problem, chemical engineers at Princeton University developed a method for shooting stable jets of electrically charged liquids from a wide nozzle. The technique, which produced lines just 100 nanometers wide (about one ten-thousandth of a millimeter), offers at least 10 times better resolution than ink-jet printing and far more speed and ease than conventional nanotechnology.
Sibel Korkut, a Princeton University graduate student in chemical engineering, discovered how to control electrically charged jets of liquid and print superthin lines just one ten-thousandth of a millimeter wide. Here she adjusts a high-speed camera she used to analyze the jets. (Image courtesy Frank Wojciechowski)
“It is a liquid delivery system on a micro scale,” said Ilhan Aksay, professor of chemical engineering. “And it becomes a true writing technology.”

Developing a deep understanding of the fundamental physics behind the process rather than building highly specialized equipment, the researchers were able to use a nozzle that is half a millimeter wide, or 5000 times wider than the lines it produced.

The key to the process is something called an “electrohydrodynamic (EHD) jet” -- a stream of liquid forced from a nozzle by a very strong electric field. Such jets were first investigated in 1917 and are now commonly used in a variety of industrial processes. However, one of the main features of EHD jets is that the stream of liquid becomes unstable soon after it leaves the nozzle and either whips around uncontrollably or breaks up into fine liquid drops. Engineers have used these effects to their advantage in spinning fibers and in industrial electrospray painting, but the reason for the whipping instability -- and any way of stopping it -- has been a long-standing problem.

In the early part of this decade, two researchers working independently -- Princeton graduate student Hak Poon and Cornell University physicist Harold Craighead -- found that the jet was stable for a very short distance after leaving the nozzle, but the result was still not practical and the reasons were still elusive.

“To understand how to control the jet in any engineering application we had to understand why this was happening,” Aksay said.

Graduate student Sibel Korkut took up the challenge and worked for nearly six years to nail down the mechanisms at play. In the end, she found that a key factor was that the liquid jet was transferring some of its electrical charge to the surrounding gas, which breaks into charged particles and carries some of the electrical current. Korkut’s predecessors and other scientists had looked only at the density of the electrical charges on the surface of the liquid jet.
Left: A conventional electrohydrodynamic (EHD) jet -- a stream of electrically charged liquid forced from a nozzle -- whips uncontrollably. Right: A stabilized jet produced by Princeton University engineers. The long-sought achievement has many possible uses in electronics and other industries. (Image courtesy Princeton University)
Expanding her view of the system led Korkut to a simple way to control the stability of the jet by changing the gas and the amount of water vapor. She was able to produce an extremely straight and stable jet more than 8 mm from the nozzle. (See video image of straight and whipping jets here)

The result is highly practical not only because of the fineness of the stream but also because the large size of the nozzle and the distance from the nozzle to the printed surface will prevent clogs or jams.

Aksay said a chief use for the technique could be in printing electrically conducting organic polymers (plastics) that could be the basis for large electronic devices. Conventional techniques for making wires of that size (100 nm) require laboriously etching the lines with a beam of electrons, which can only be done in very small areas. The new technique can lay down lines at the rate of meters per second as opposed to millionths of a meter per second.

Another application would be to use a liquid that solidifies into a fiber for making precise 3-D lattices. Such a product could be used as a scaffold to promote blood clotting in wounds and in other medical devices.

“Electronics is a huge potential application for this discovery,” said John Lettow, president of Vorbeck Materials, a specialty chemical company in Maryland that has licensed the rights to the technology. “The printing technique could greatly increase the size of video displays and the speed with which high performance displays are made.”

Lettow said the technique also could be used in creating large sensors that collect information over a wide area, such as a sensor printed onto an airplane wing to detect metal fatigue.

Even though Korkut began to see improved stability of the jet after five years, she still did not have a precise handle on the causes. 

“It took more than a year after we saw the clues. We had to look at many possibilities,” Korkut said.

Aksay said Korkut succeeded because of her persistence. “If you give up too soon, you can’t come up with a breakthrough.”

Aksay and Korkut published the results Jan. 25 in the journal Physical Review Letters. The paper also includes as a co-author Dudley Saville, a chemical engineering professor who initiated the project but died in 2006.

The research was funded by grants from the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

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That branch of science involved in the study and utilization of the motion, emissions and behaviors of currents of electrical energy flowing through gases, vacuums, semiconductors and conductors, not to be confused with electrics, which deals primarily with the conduction of large currents of electricity through metals.
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
A material whose molecular structure consists of long chains made up by the repetition of many (usually thousands) of similar groups of atoms.
1. A generic term for detector. 2. A complete optical/mechanical/electronic system that contains some form of radiation detector.
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