Possible Futures with Organic Electronics

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Possible futures with organic electronics

by Samantha Phan

As a child I loved all the shows and movies that imagined what life would be like as the future, with all the gadgets and electronics. I loved watching the Jetsons, Star Wars, and Meet the Robinsons. Meet the Robinsons is one of my favorite movies because it’s about this smart scientist boy who takes a trip to the future! Where he meets these amazing people and witnesses the future’s gadgets. At the time, I could only dream of having electronics like that one day. Now, we live in a technological age where technology and electronics are all around us! Our modern lives depend on electronics and will continue to do so in the future.

Current electronics

Some of the newest and most advanced electronics are composed of organic materials and are called organic electronics. Organic electronics are electronic devices that are made up of organic carbon-based materials. Compared to traditional electronics, scientists can tune the properties of organic electronics much more specifically, which leads to more unique devices! A well-known commercial example of organic electronics are organic LEDs, which are used in phone or TV screens. However, there are many types of organic electronics! A few examples are (1) stretchable electronic skin that can monitor vital signs, (2) wearable patches that can monitor personal UV exposure, and (3) flexible solar panels that can coat windows to power homes or buildings.

What’s the organic material?

Organic material is used to make organic electronics. That organic material is a polymer! Polymers are large molecules composed of many repeating subunits. Polymers can be analogously thought of as freight trains. Many freight cars (subunits) are linked (bonded together) to form a single entity, the train (polymer). Depending on the type of subunits used, scientists can modify the performances of the polymers to use them in different types of organic electronics. My favorite part is how you can make the polymers brightly glow different colors!

Why aren’t there more organic electronics?

Despite the unique capabilities of organic electronics, few devices have reached the public in a commercial setting. And that’s because of the difficulty to make the polymer material for the electronics. As a chemist, I make these polymers in laboratory. If you’ve ever seen Breaking Bad, my days are not too unlike that. Making polymers, takes a lot of time, effort, and money. Not only that, but making polymers also produces a significant amount of chemical waste. To make 1 kg (about 2 lbs, about seven smartphones) of a polymer, it costs about $500 and generates more than 1500 kg of waste (more than 3000 lbs, or 10,500 smartphones). That’s a lot of money and a lot waste.

The startling reality is that our current ways are not sustainable. As much as I want all the amazing electronics, our future might be darker than all my favorite shows and movies portray. This is why I’m studying chemistry. This is why I’m developing new ways to make polymers. So, our future can stay brighter than the polymers’ glow.

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