Open hardware and unconventional electronics

Many open hardware projects use electronic components and integrated circuits that are literal “black boxes”. Electronics manufacturers typically provide documentation that includes a high-level functional description, important figures of merit, and application recommendations, but not the “silicon source code”. Moreover it is not practical to use commercial silicon fabrication techniques to produce low volumes of custom components. Unconventional electronics based on conductive polymers, plastics, and small molecules offer an attractive alternative. These electronics can be made using low-cost fabrication techniques and their performance is “good enough” for many applications. In the laboratory it’s now possible to make individual devices, such as transistors, light-emitting diodes, solar cells, and batteries; circuit building blocks, such as inverters and operational amplifiers; and even microprocessors using unconventional electronics. At the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics (CLUE) researchers are working to bring these technologies outside of the laboratory and make them accessible to open hardware enthusiasts.

Our approach is to leverage existing 3D printing technology to enable printable electronics. Desktop 3D printing technology allows users to design, fabricate, and share a wide variety of mechanical objects. A desktop electronics printer would enable users to do the same for electronic components. In this talk we will demonstrate a modified commercial desktop 3D printer that can print a range of electronic materials, such as conductors, dielectrics, and light-emitting and photovoltaic polymers, and discuss the its current capabilities and limitations. Today it’s possible to print macro-scale single element devices, and ultimately it will be possible to print micro-scale devices that will enable printable embedded systems. We invite the open source community to get involved and speed up this development process. We need material scientists and chemists to develop high performance, non-toxic, widely available materials. We need hardware engineers to design and test new fabrication equipment. We software engineers to improve the software toolchain and make the technology more accessible and user friendly. Together we can enable truly open printable electronic components for open hardware.

John Sarik

Columbia University

John Sarik is working on a PhD in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. He currently works in the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics and has previously worked at IBM Research Tokyo and Microsoft Research Cambridge. His research interests include open hardware in education, energy harvesting wireless sensor networks, and printable electronics. His personal interests include nixie tubes and anagrams.


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