Q&A: What is UV/EB’s Role in Bringing Flexible Electronics to the Marketplace?

By Mike J. Idacavage, Ph.D., Vice President of Business Development, Colorado Photopolymer Solutions
Michael Ciesinski, president & CEO of FlexTech Alliance, presented the 2015 FLEXI R&D Achievement Award to the Vitex Systems team of Robert Jan Visser, Martin Rosenblum, Xi Chu and Lorenza Moro. Together with Gordon Graff of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (not pictured), this team created the Barix system, which uses UV-curable coatings to create a solution that has been critical for the development of a new generation of curved and flexible OLED displays.

More than 580 registrants converged on Monterey, California, recently to attend 2015FLEX – the Flexible & Printed Electronics Conference and Exhibition, which was hosted by FlexTech Alliance. Keynote presentations and technical sessions focused on the latest market trends and what it takes to bring technology and products to the marketplace, while show floor exhibits featured first-hand demonstrations of end products, new manufacturing tools and materials. Dr. Mike J. Idacavage, vice president of business development for Colorado Photopolymer Solutions, attended the event and shared his thoughts about UV/EB technology’s role in existing and emerging flexible electronics markets.

Question: Despite the role that energy curing plays in flexible electronic technology, the 2015FLEX programming didn’t seem to highlight UV/EB technology. Was this a missed opportunity?

Answer: The plenary speakers focused on how flexible electronics are making an impact in today’s markets – and the overall tone was promising – with solid examples provided in the form of successful applications currently using flexible electronic technology. I believe the fact that UV/EB curing wasn’t highlighted during the conference is a positive indicator that energy curing is now considered to be an essential tool for success. Currently there is no need to highlight UV/EB technology as cutting edge or exceptional in terms of flexible electronics.

Several speakers suggested that UV curing was one of the tools used in developing flexible electronics applications, but no specific details were provided – with the exception of an interesting presentation by Dr. Stefano Tominetti, from the SAES Group. Tominetti discussed his work developing a UV-curable flexible barrier sealant for use in flexible barrier films. While many flexible barrier films currently use UV-cured films as planerizing coatings, his group is developing new UV-curable formulations that incorporate “getter” particles to trap the small amount of water that might permeate the adhesive film. I hope that we will be able to share Tominetti’s work in a future issue of UV+EB Technology magazine.

Question: What are some current trends in flexible electronics?

Answer: Flexible electronic technology has progressed far enough to allow innovators to focus on end use applications. From a technology-based point of view, there are ongoing efforts to improve the manufacturing processes – to move to roll-to-roll manufacturing lines, which will require advances in many areas, including improved methods for QC testing. In terms of UV-curable chemistry, water and oxygen barrier coatings is another area where work continues to be done.

From an applications point of view, considerable efforts are underway to move the latest technological advancements to existing electronic devices. While foldable display screens may be the first application that comes to mind, especially for those outside the flexible electronics market, there are significant opportunities in other less visible areas. The plenary talk by Dr. Anil Duggal of GE Global Research stressed the importance of wearable electronics in the health care market, which can range from in-hospital use and outpatient applications to home health avenues as well. The sports and wellness markets also were emphasized.

Another less obvious application for flexible electronics is lighting. With rapidly evolving improvements occurring in flexible organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) for displays and lighting, companies are hungry to launch this technology in consumer and industrial markets. OLED lighting benefits, such as low energy consumption and the ability to be manufactured by a printing type process, are driving the expansion toward a mass producible commodity. Dr. H.K. Chung of Sungkyunkwan University discussed what he believes to be the beginning of the plastic displays era through active matrix OLEDs, and he shared key manufacturing challenges that include cost reduction, maintaining a thin form factor and reliability. Commercializing OLED technology for lighting was addressed by Dr. C.T. Liu of Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). Liu also officially announced the formation of OLCA – the OLED Lighting Commercialization Alliance.

Question: What does the future of flexible electronics hold in relation to UV/EB technology?

Answer: As demonstrated by the record attendance at 2015FLEX, many companies are looking to make use of flexible electronics. Potential applications currently are divided between evolving rigid electronic devices, the more robust flexible systems and the ability to enable brand new applications. This is good news for the UV/EB curing technology arena, as there will be increasing demand for high performance energy-cured coatings and inks, as well as some opportunity in the areas of high-efficiency water barrier coatings, UV-curable or visible light-curable adhesives that also serve as water barriers and high and low refractive index (RI) materials. One key advantage of UV-curable systems is increased capacity for productivity, which means the increased production demands from flexible electronics manufacturers will align perfectly with one of the UV/EB curing industry’s greatest strengths.

Question: Were there any UV/EB related FLEXI Award winners this year?

Answer: During the 2015FLEX event, the FlexTech Alliance presented awards for significant accomplishments in the areas of innovation, research and development and leadership in education. The research and development award was presented to a team of people – from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Vitex Systems – that used UV-curable coatings to create a solution that has been critical for the development of a new generation of curved and flexible OLED displays.

The Barix® system is based on an alternate sandwich of a UV-curable coating (dyad) that serves as a planarization layer and as a sputtered aluminum oxide layer. Barix’s basic principles have been critical in the development of flexible, transparent thin film barriers needed to protect the moisture- and oxygen-sensitive materials used in mobile electronics and, as a result, curved and flexible OLED displays are emerging on the marketplace.

Dr. Gordon Graff of PNNL and Drs. Lorenza Moro, Xi Chu, Martin Rosenblum and Robert Jan Visser of Vitex Systems were recognized for creating the Barix system, which has been commercialized by Samsung Cheil Industries.

Mike J. Idacavage, Ph.D., is Vice President of Business Development at Colorado Photopolymer Solutions. He can be reached at mike.idacavage@cpspolymers.com.