We just submitted a nice writeup of some if my recent work on semiconducting polymer networks to the ACS’s Chemistry of Materials journal. It’s not going to spark any revolutions in the plastic electronics field, but it’s a really solid contribution towards the ability to fine-tune certain chemistries for making designer applications.
A bit of background for the curious. If you’ve got a smartphone, there are even odds that it uses OLEDs in the display. OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) are different than older conventional LED lights in that they are made primarily from oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, where the older LEDs would usually contain lots of metals like silicon and gallium. Recently, people have figured out how to exploit OLEDs so that they’re brighter and more efficient than metal-based LEDs. It’s a win-win. Manufactures use cheaper materials (carbon’s cheaper than gallium), and you get a nice bright phone.
But win-win isn’t good enough. Organic electronics folks are looking for is a win-win-win. One of the biggest advantages of organic electronics is theire flexibility. You can do things like this with them:
That’s a flexible OLED display recently developed by Samsung (full disclosure: some of our grant money comes from none other than Samsung).
So why can’t your phone do that yet? To make the flexible stuff competitive in the market, it needs to both last a long time, and be efficiently bright. The OLEDs in your phone are actually quite brittle, largely because they’re a tight package of small molecules that can fracture when you flex them. To get the stable flexibility, you need use loooong chains of molecules – polymers. But polymers aren’t as bright or efficient as the small molecules yet, so no electronic newspapers for anyone so far.
But! We’re working on it. Hence our paper to Chemistry of Materials. The gist of it is that we’ve developed new chemistries for locking long electronic polymers into a stable semiconducting network that emits light. And not only do those chemistries work with a wide range of LED colors, they’re also waaay easy to make in the lab. That’s a good thing: new science isn’t going to make any headway into commercial applications if it’s difficult and complex, no matter how gee-whiz it is. Have people made semiconducting networks before? Sure they have. But our new way is faster, with less harmful side products, and applicable to a wide range of colors that you can stick in a phone or TV.
So at its heart, I’d call this a perfect example of solid incremental-style science. Presentation of some new ideas expanded from older less efficient ones, hashing out the details to show that those ideas can indeed work, and a few pretty “ooh and ahh” pictures and graphs as some (scientifically important!) eye candy. Never underestimate the power of pretty pictures. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed and see what the reviewers say in a month or so.