PARC Helps Drive Innovation in PE

By David Savastano

When you consider how offices have been impacted by technology in the past 30 years, there have been amazing changes. Laser printing improved office efficiency, the Ethernet proved to be the foundation for local area networking, and the graphical user interface changed how we used computers.

All of these advancements have one thing in common: They came out of PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), an R&D facility founded by Xerox Corporation in 1970 with the mandate to create “The Office of the Future.”

PARC obviously has succeeded in its goal, and has numerous other achievements as well, including pioneering work on liquid crystal displays (LCD); the spin out dpiX, which makes the X-ray equivalent of a digital camera and Adobe PDF formats; and laser diode technology for optical communications, spun out into SDL Inc., eventually bought by JDS Uniphase for $41B.

Today, PARC is an independent for-profit entity, having been spun out by Xerox in 2002. With its background in printing, graphics, and foundational innovation, PARC has turned its expertise to the areas of printed and flexible electronics with key successes. The company developed printed thin-film transistors utilizing amorphous silicon (a-Si) on flexible substrates as early as 1983, and in 2003, created some of the first plastic semiconductors. Today, sensors and displays are among the key areas of focus for PARC.

A World of Innovation

John Knights, senior director of business development, first joined PARC in the early 1970s, drawn to its unique mix of computer science, physics, chemistry and social sciences. "Today, we have a similar mix but the focus is on innovating across a wider application space," he said.

While the company still has major projects with Xerox, PARC has the opportunity to pick and choose its projects, and its clients. For example, the company has worked in conjunction with SolFocus, a startup on concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) technology, on improvements to their concentrator design. PARC also works with large multinational enterprises such as Samsung, Fujitsu, NEC and others.

Thin-film electronics remains a major area of interest. PARC started looking into thin-film electronics in the early 1980s, and went into printed electronics in 2000.
“The logical place for PE is low cost," Knights said. "Our first interest was in making organic thin film transistors (TFTs), and we have a lot of expertise in thin film transistors through the work we did for both displays and X-ray imagers that were spun out to dpiX.”

The company has approximately 170 scientists and engineers and 60 business and operational staff members, who include leaders in fields spanning computer science, engineering, linguistics, physics, psychology and sociology. Knights said the PARC PE research draws on a pool of researchers (around 25, according to him), and has strong ties with universities, including Stanford, UC-Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

“We have a pilot line for printing circuits using inkjet technology, which is really well suited for prototyping. We are also looking at other printing technologies, " Knights said. Knights also noted that printing is a natural focus for PARC because of the original connection with Xerox, and when organic semiconductors became available in solution, the logical path was to explore printing.

"By using printing, we were able to develop the first all-additive technology for semiconductors, which unlike the subtractive processes used for today’s flat panel displays, uses less material and can be much less polluting since etching is eliminated,” he noted.

The display market remains a lucrative field, and PARC is focusing more on the novel materials side of the business, since the major display manufacturers all have large research teams.

“The display field has good commercial possibilities,” Knights said. “The flat panel display market is a $100 billion market, mostly manufactured with a-Si. PARC works with suppliers to the display business. Suppliers come to us with materials that they suspect will work with these applications, in order to get help characterizing them in TFTs. Meanwhile, we are also working on our own applications, such as sensor-enabled devices.”

Knights is not certain, however, that printing will become the technology of choice for flat panel displays. “In displays, printing and flexible don’t necessarily have to go together, and printing may not be ideal for displays, which are very demanding. Organics offer excellent performance, but lifetime remains to be seen,” he said. “You expect a TV to last a long time.”

One area that does appear promising is developing low-cost products based on sensors. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, came to PARC with the need for a low-cost, disposable sensor that could be worn on soldiers’ helmets to measure blast exposure as a way of minimizing cumulative traumatic brain injury. Since PARC often uses government contracts to explore technologies that they later bring to market with commercial partners, they decided to respond by developing a "sensor tape" that conforms to helmets to measure impact.

“The key for DARPA was that these displays be disposable (they don’t want to have to do maintenance on the battlefield) and very low cost,“ Knights said. “DARPA wanted to see if anybody could produce this kind of device for a dollar a piece. We did, and it performed very well. Our sensor tape detects pressure, sound, light and other data; stores the information; and reads it out – for less than a dollar. We are able to get equivalent results to commercially available and more expensive sensors. “

PARC sees excellent opportunities going forward for similar printed and flexible electronics applications, since they are set up for low cost and disposability.

"The possibilities are pretty amazing," Knights says. "There's technology that allows you to put lenses on sensors in order to take pictures. Consumer health is another strong area for PE, and would be ideal for applications that don’t require FDA approval. Imagine for example a first-aid adhesive bandage with a sensor to track temperature.

“We are bullish on the PE market, but there is a difference between PE and flexible electronics," Knights adds. "Flexible electronics are not necessarily printed, as it can be done subtractively and potentially with very high resolution. However, ink-jet and other printing technologies are very good ways to deliver material to a substrate in a patterned form, and we believe this approach has a great future.”