Flexible electronics are now a reality thanks to new technology created by North Wales company SmartKem Ltd, with the help of scientists at Bangor University.

Scientists at the School of Electronic Engineering have been testing SmartKem’s new material tru-FLEX® and have been able to confirm that it will be able to operate at the frequency required to make flexible electronics a reality.

This result demonstrates that the historic barrier to realising fast, solution-printed electronics no longer exists and opens the door to a wide range of exciting application possibilities.

The truFLEX® semiconductor material developed by SmartKem means that we will soon be seeing complex flexible electronics for RFID, NFC and sensors for wearable electronics becoming ubiquitous.

The truFLEX® material was designed for the low temperature, low-cost, production of truly flexible electronics manufactured using solution coat production techniques. High performance, low cost and high volume production of flexible electronics on almost any surface type is seen as the holt grail to realising the right technology platform to enable “The Internet of Things” (IoT), a world of wearables, nearable and mobile communication devices.

Its flexibility and durability, coupled with the potential for high volume production means circuits such as RFID or NFC tags (essentially electronic bar codes) could be applied to all consumer products.

Dr Mike Cowin, head of strategic marketing at SmartKem, adds: “This brings the possibility that you could go to your local supermarket, fill your shopping trolley and just walk out of the store – all products will be scanned by RF in the trolley as you walk out and payment taken by your secure mobile or smartwatch device.”

IoT has been talked about by techies for a while now, and a future is coming where everything we use will be connected to the internet via, for example, a mobile phone app, so that your fridge will be able to alert you to the fact that you need more milk. Smart cities will have traffic signals that can monitor utility use and farmers will use sensors on crops and livestock to monitor health and boost production.

Flexible electronics for sensing and communication, along with wearable and mobile technology, will form key components in the distributed network that will be the ‘internet of things’. Information can be collected and shared amongst people, and each individual is almost a node in the network, gathering, using and exchanging information geospatially, at home, in the office or on the move.

The advantages of such an pervasive, ambient communication network will be fundamental in terms improving health, lifestyle, work efficiency and general quality of life.

Professor Martin Taylor, from the School of Electronic Engineering said: “Bangor’s involvement in this exciting project started some five years ago when we partnered on a research project supported by the Welsh Assembly and Innovate UK (previously known as the Technology Strategy Board). Using our specialist facilities we were able to identify the best processing conditions for producing high performance organic transistors. The results were used by SmartKem to support a number of patent applications.  More recently, the Bangor/SmartKem team produced a 10-transitor circuit called a ring oscillator with the highest reported operating frequency for a solution-processed organic semiconductor. This is a really important result because ring oscillators are used as internal clocks in digital logic circuits and the faster they oscillate, the faster the logic circuit will work”.

“These are exciting times,” commented Steve Kelly, CEO and founder of SmartKem. “This is a great result and a testament to our capability in material and transistor expertise. This emphasises the enabling nature of materials innovation in driving forward the potential of flexible electronics, not just for application to smart, flexible electronics for the Internet of Things, for instance, but also the unique position it holds in enabling the growth of the flexible display industry.  Bangor’s assistance on this project has been essential, without their expertise we would not have been able to achieve such a fantastic result.”