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by Allie Nicodemo
July 25, 2016
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A flexible future for today’s technologies

Imagine a medical clinic operating in a remote African village. It is the only place within hundreds of miles where villagers can go to receive health care, and the doctors treat 40 or more patients per day. They have one X-ray machine.

Traditional X-ray detectors are made of glass. If they break, they are rendered useless and must be replaced. That might not be a problem for hospitals and clinics with the funding and access to buy new devices, but for isolated, low-income sites, a broken X-ray machine could be devastating.

One solution would be to build an X-ray detector that’s virtually indestructible. That is the goal of a project led by Arizona State University’s Flexible Electronics and Display Center (FEDC), where researchers are building a durable, rugged and flexible X-ray detector.

The center was founded in 2004 through a partnership with the U.S. Army. FEDC experts collaborate with government, academia, and industry to provide comprehensive flexible electronics capabilities that bridge the high-risk, resource-intensive gap between innovation and product development.

Located at the ASU Research Park, the facility offers unique manufacturing pilot lines in a Class 10 clean room. It provides an information-secure environment for process, tool and materials development and evaluation.

With a normal digital X-ray machine, even a small bump could chip the edge of the glass and shatter it.

“With our X-ray being plastic, you could bump into it all day and it’s not going to ever break,” says Mark Strnad, associate director of FEDC.

That would be hugely beneficial to organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, which provides health care to thousands of people each year at rural sites in developing countries.

In addition to being durable and rugged, flexible X-ray detectors have the ability to bend and conform to a curved surface. This allows them to give a more accurate reading than current detectors, which are flat and rigid. One potential application could lie in helping companies that have long pipelines with welds or seams that must be monitored for leaks. Whether the pipes hold water, gas, oil or some other substance, having a flexible X-ray could mean catching a leak early and preventing a potentially catastrophic accident.

The Army is interested in using flexible X-ray detectors to detect bombs. The size, weight, and ruggedness of the device make it much more practical for explosive ordnance detection in military missions.

FEDC is also one of the only places in the United States that produces flexible displays. In 2012, researchers at the center created the world’s largest flexible full-color organic light-emitting diode (OLED), which at the time was 7.4 inches. The following year, the FEDC staff broke their own world record, producing a 14.7-inch version of the display

Compared to previous devices, these flexible displays are thinner and much more lightweight.

“It’s as thin as a sheet of paper. Think of a display that you could roll up and tuck away somewhere or put in places you can’t normally find displays because they’re big and heavy and bulky,” says Nick Colaneri, the director of FEDC.

The Army is also interested in flexible displays because they are ideal for integrating into soldiers’ clothing, where they can provide real-time information to enhance safety. This was a key design feature the Army asked FEDC researchers to consider as they built the displays.

“As long as displays are big, heavy, bulky and made out of glass that can break, it’s obviously not ideal for a soldier that already has 100 pounds of stuff that he or she has to carry around,” says Colaneri. “The Army funded this project because they had an interest in pushing for displays that are thin, lightweight and don’t break. They imagine more and more electronic devices that are going to allow soldiers to do their jobs or keep them safe on the battlefield.”

Building highly complex flexible displays and X-ray detectors requires expertise in many areas. That’s why FEDC brings together industry partners in one central hub.   

“Think of it like building a car,” Strnad says. “You’ve got the engine, transmission, suspension, electronics, all these things. Everybody has a piece of it, but nobody could put it all together by themselves.” FEDC works with about 50 partners to make these cutting-edge technologies a reality.

Ito America Corporation is an engineering sales group that specializes in semiconductor packaging and LCD assembly. As one of the original partners of FEDC, Ito brought expertise, equipment and a tool set that is used for the assembly of the flexible displays.

“We looked at it as we’re helping out the future of soldiers in harm’s way with a way to communicate. We thought that was a noble effort,” says Tim Martinez, technical sales manager at Ito.

In addition to producing devices that could help soldiers stay safe and work more effectively, FEDC offers unprecedented hands-on experience to the next generation of engineers through its internship program.

Zachary Hartke is a junior in ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. He is majoring in chemical engineering, minoring in materials science and is an intern at FEDC.

“I’ve been working on integrating new materials into the processes that we already have here,” Hartke says. He tests new chemicals and substances to see how they might work better for the products that FEDC develops, including OLEDs, X-ray detectors and electrophoretic displays.

Specifically, Hartke is finding ways to make their materials more flexible and easier to manipulate. This work allows him to apply some of the concepts he’s learning in class, as well as gain valuable professional experience.

“Before I worked here, I hadn’t done anything related to my major at all. My first job was actually at Men’s Warehouse,” Hartke says, referring to a chain of men’s clothing stores. Despite being new to the field, Hartke has been an asset to the team, according to his supervisor Emmett Howard.

“I would say in hindsight, my expectations were exceeded. He’s done very well,” Howard says.

Hartke was able to work full-time at FEDC for a semester through the internship program, something that was important to the center.

 “In the efforts that Zachary is involved with, one day’s activity might be critical at 10 a.m., the next day it might be at 2:30 p.m.—it’s not something that can be easily scheduled,” Strnad says.

The immersion also allowed Hartke to be fully integrated into the team and become an active participant in engineering projects.

“He’s gone from sitting and listening in the meetings to actually making presentations at a couple of them,” Strnad says.

Hartke was grateful for the opportunity to work in a professional environment. He says his coworkers provided guidance and support, but also gave him the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.

“One thing I appreciated right away is that I wasn’t really treated like a student. I was treated more as an engineer,” he says. With this experience, Hartke was able to figure out what he loves and is now better positioned to pursue his dream job in the electronics industry. 

As a world-class manufacturing facility with a high level of research activity, FEDC is not only an asset to students seeking hands-on experience, but also to ASU as a whole.

“I think the fact that the university can provide things that potentially make a better society is a very unique opportunity,” says Strnad. “To not only do the research, but also supply some of the sub-components, gives ASU an even higher level of visibility.”