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PROFILE: Rochester Institute of Technology Launches University-Industry Partnership to Explore Advanced Printed Electronics

 A $599,390 grant from the National Science Foundation is being used by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to create a university-industry partnership designed to advance printed electronics and related manufacturing technologies – potentially a $45 billion global industry.

In addition to partnering with regional and national high-tech firms, RIT continues to acquire new state-of-the-art equipment to add to their assets in advanced manufacturing. The equipment is housed in the Earl W. Brinkman Machine Tools and Manufacturing Laboratory, a 3,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the research and teaching of manufacturing.

With the grant money, Dr. Denis Cormier, the Earl W. Brinkman Professor in RIT’s industrial and systems engineering department, has established a “Partnership for Innovation in Printed Devices and Materials,” which includes Intrinsiq Materials, a local company, as well as NovaCentrix, Austin, Tex., and Optomec, based in Albuquerque, N.M.  

The latter two companies are national enterprises that manufacture equipment for the emerging fields of printing/deposition, nano-inks, and print applications. These technologies are being used to develop such advanced manufacturing applications as smart sensors, biomedical devices, touch screens and fuel cells across a wide variety of industries, such as medical, aeronautics, defense and automotive.

Corimer is one of the premier researchers in the field of advanced printing devices and technologies.

According to RIT President Bill Destler, “The initiative and the resources of the Brinkman Lab will be a remarkable resource to advanced manufacturing firms in the region and throughout New York State.”  

Cormier adds, “We have the infrastructure here. In this region alone we have a variety of companies that make printing or deposition equipment, companies that make nano-inks for printing and another group of companies that use the printers and inks for applications.  The region has a lot to offer and we have the opportunity to transform the manufacturing industry.”

The university-industry partnership is a collaboration to further develop ink chemistries for: aerosol jet printing and subsequent photonic sintering; libraries of printed material compatibilities to enable the design of printed devices; and novel multi-material printing techniques to enable the synthesis of new, organic photovoltaic devices.  It will foster further corporate research and development, training of a skilled labor force in the industry, and student participation in research efforts.

Purchasing a PulseForge

The Brinkman Lab’s most recent acquisition is a NovaCentrix PulseForge 3300, an advanced manufacturing system for the development and production of semiconductor and photovoltaic materials processing.  The system is designed to process materials such as silicon, zinc oxide and CIGS (chalcopyrites) used for printed logic, display, and photovoltaic applications.  

The tool creates the very high processing temperatures required for recrystallization and annealing, but without damaging low-temperature materials like polymeric substrates or adjacent organic materials. This is accomplished by using high-intensity lamps emitting very short pulses to heat materials such as nano-inks that, once fused, exhibit conductive properties. (See video below.)  Because microseconds of over-exposure can make the difference between a successful and failed product, the PulseForge is designed to deliver exposures as short as 30 microseconds.

Last June, RIT added another high tech tool to its Brinkman Lab with the purchase of an Optomec Aerosol Jet system for developing printed energy devices. The system is being used primarily to develop solid oxide fuel cells, batteries, photovoltaic’s, and other energy-related printed devices using advanced nano-materials such as quantum dots.

The Aerosol Jet system has the unique ability to dynamically mix materials during the deposition process to produce functional graded structures, as well as deposit viscous inks, and print on non-planar surfaces.

Says Cormier, “Aerosol Jet printing allows for sensors to be embedded within energy devices to monitor temperature, strain, etc. This can provide important feedback during operation of the device.”  

He went on to say that the NovaCentrix PulseForge 3300 photonic curing system would be located next to the Aerosol Jet and noted that,  “The combination of Aerosol Jet printing with photonic curing will allow us to print and then cure high temperature materials (metals and some ceramics) on low temperature substrates such as paper or plastic.  We are very excited about the possibilities this will open up in the area of high performance printed electronics.  We think that’s going to be a real win-win for both organizations since it will allow the Aerosol Jet process to be used for applications that previously weren’t available.”

Forging New Relationships

This RIT foray into next-generation printing and advanced manufacturing can be seen in a larger context.  Writing in a recent issue of the Huffington Post, Destler discussed how forging new relationships between business and academia is essential for US competitiveness.  He described an RIT template agreement, which sets guidelines for the university to collaborate with companies for their mutual benefit.  Several companies are sponsoring research at RIT using the template, including such well know enterprises as Johnson & Johnson, Harris RF, Varian Semiconductor, Moog Aerospace and Intel.  

Destler writes, “If universities and colleges are to become the economic engines in their communities that they aspire to be, then their research and development activities need to be focused, at least in part, on projects that have the potential to lead to new products and services.”

Which is precisely what RIT and the Brinkman Lab are all about.

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