UA’s Polymer Center ‘Flexes’ the Future

AKRON, Ohio -- The year is 2020 and it’s the holiday season. For Christmas, you give your grandmother a special sweater to wear around the house. You really don’t want her living by herself but she insists she can.

A few weeks later you get a signal on your smartphone that she’s fallen on the floor and her vital signs are weak. The source of the signal? Her sweater, of course. You call 9-1-1 and then fold up your phone (Yes, fold it up) stick it in your pocket and head to the hospital.

Dr. Miko Cakmak likes to use this example to describe the cutting-edge technology coming in the not-that-distant future when flexible electronics are commonplace. The technology is being researched and developed at the National Polymer Innovation Center on the campus of the University of Akron.

“Flexible electronics are about to take off in a very big way,” explains Cakmak, distinguished professor at Akron’s College of Polymer Science and Engineering. “It’s going to be a significant portion of our future activities.”

Flexible electronics are just that: electronics that are flexible – mounted, if you will, on various types and thicknesses of bendable plastic film. Applications could include wearable non-intrusive biomedical devices embedded in clothing or on a patch placed on your skin, personal electronics, television screens that can be rolled up, and paper-thin solar cells. One estimate has the flexible electronics market growing to $77 billion within a decade.

On this day, a business group is touring the Polymer Center as graduate students nearby are busy conducting research. Among the visitors is Tim Fahey, director of cluster acceleration at NorTech.

“The Innovation Center was funded by Ohio Third Frontier money and it’s a beautiful facility where you have pilot scale lines to produce novel materials for use in electronics,” Fahey explains. “So we’ve been assisting them in interfacing with the industry to fit those advanced materials into applications in flexible electronics.”

The center is a modern structure with an impressive glass entrance. Under high ceilings, its 10 laboratories cover nearly 43,000 square feet. The bay areas are filled with state-of-the-art research equipment. This center is also a partner of the National Additive Manufacturing Institute in Youngstown with 3-D printing capabilities as well.

One of the most impressive machines inside is used for electro-magnetic processing. It was designed and constructed on site by the staff and students who work here.

“You can see it’s a 75-foot machine,” Cakmak remarks. “You can not only do the research but also industrial-scale film manufacturing.”

He continues, his description that sounds more and more like something from a sci-fi television show:

“The uniqueness of this one is that it starts with liquid dispersed with nanoparticles. And it’s the only one of its kind in the world that can get the nanoparticles oriented in the thickness direction.”

As we move on to another machine, he holds up a thin square piece of film:

“It has nano-fibers built into it and it is electrically conductive on one side and totally insulating on the other side. And this is exactly what you need for the next generation iPhone.”

The professor smiles. “Imagine rolling up your phone! It’s coming!”

The equipment inside the center is all industrial scale. The roll-to-roll machines, as they’re called, are not commonly available in industry. They are unique systems focused on products designed for the marketplace of the future where flexible electronics in sports apparel and other easy-breathing fabrics are sold along with membranes for fuel cells and batteries.

Companies can rent the center to do their own testing or have the graduate students here research a concept. The premise is that as the industry builds up and spins off by using the new capabilities, a workforce is being generated as well.

“So it goes hand in hand,” explains Cakmak. They [students] do the research. Then the companies eventually hire these people to run the facilities. That’s the whole concept.”

Forty-four members of the Akron faculty teach in the College of Polymer Science and Engineering, and there are 250 to 300 students, all in graduate programs.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Cakmak says. “These kids are so excited to work on leading-edge technologies and you can see in their faces that they get all excited because there’s something tangible coming out at the end of their research.”

The polymer (or plastics) industry is one of Ohio’s largest; more than 8% of all polymer industry jobs in the United States are in the Buckeye State. Cakmak says at the center they try to take early risk out of the picture for companies while promising confidentiality.

“Many of these small entrepreneurs cannot afford to build such capabilities,” he notes. “They can actually demonstrate the X-scale feasibility of the manufacturing of functional films using this facility and then it makes it easier for them to go to the next step of commercialization.”

The end goal?

“Jobs, jobs, jobs, economic impact creating new businesses,” he answers.

He gives another everyday example of how a family might use flexible electronics – helmets for kids. Cakmak explains what the next smarter football helmet might be capable of doing:

“If they get a concussion, the sensor will tell you what the severity is and how many concussions your child has had.”

He calls the technology exciting with flexible and friendlier electronics replacing the rigid technology we use today.

The tour moves on. Cakmak starts talking about biosensors one day having conductivity through a person’s skin. He shows off another unique machine with a capability well beyond this reporter’s level of understanding. He finally laughs and explains it as simply as he can.

“This may not mean much to you but this is like magic to processing engineers. We’ve dreamed about doing this. Now we’re doing it.”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the June edition of The Business Journal as part of our year-long series, "Trending: TechBelt."

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our twice-monthly print edition and to our free daily email headlines.