Printing electronics - organically

Interview with Dr. Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa, Group Leader Printed Electronics Group at InnovationLab, Head of BMBF Junior Research Group "BioLicht", Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT

Some things are made to last, others are not. Electronics and electronic components are one of the former. After they are discarded, they put a huge burden at the environment since they do not decompose and potentially contain hazardous materials. The solution to this problem could be their production from biodegradable materials in a process that allows for mass production - by printing.


Photo: Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa; ©Tanja Meißner/ KIT

Dr. Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa; ©Tanja Meißner/ KIT

Dr. Hernandez-Sosa explains the advantages of printable, biodegradable and biocompatible electronics in the interview with

Dr. Hernandez-Sosa, what is the background behind the Junior research group "BioLicht"?

Dr. Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa: There has been a lot of scientific work on the development of materials that are not dangerous to the environment and that can also be used in electronics. We are developing technologies and biodegradable/biocompatible materials to produce organic optoelectronic devices through printing technologies. These technologies are closer to an industrial or industry-friendly fabrication.

What potential benefit does this have for medical technology and other industries?

Hernandez-Sosa: Medical and other devices that rely on printed electronics can be produced in a continuous process like magazines, newspapers or packaging. The production can be highly efficient and yield thousands or millions of pieces in a short time. Furthermore, electronics made from biodegradable/biocompatible materials decay over time and do not impact the environment like anorganic alternatives do.

A conceivable application in medical technology is the development of band aids with incorporated sensors to monitor the healing process.
Photo: Circuits

Future printed electronics coul be programmed with a certain life span after which they start to decompose; © MauMyHa

What lifetime would such electronics have?

Hernandez-Sosa: This depends on the material which is used. In some cases, degradation is programmed to set in after a certain time or after a certain stimulus from outside happens. Decomposition can happen in the order of days to months. It also depends a lot on the application.

Groups in the University of Illinois and Tufts University have for example researched small implantable, antenna-like devices. They were used to produce heat in the body of laboratory rats in order to locally treat an infection. The rats’ bodies absorbed the devices after they recovered, so it was not necessary to remove them afterwards.

Your project started roughly one year ago. How far have you progressed, what obstacles have you met?

Hernandez-Sosa: At this point, we are working at technical questions that concern the printing process. Questions arise like how to treat surfaces so that ink can stick to them while the process is still ecologically friendly. This is basically troubleshooting: printing technologies and different techniques exist as well as biodegradable/biocompatible materials. The problem is how to successfully join these two worlds together.

So later one could use a regular printer?

Hernandez-Sosa: Our aim is to make processes available for industrial printers, not printers in the office or at home. Techniques like screen printing, gravure printing or inkjet printing are already available in the industry for other applications. Basically, we want manufacturers of organic electronics to swap to biodegradable/biocompatible materials without having to exchange their printer arsenal.
Photo: Timo Roth; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Timo Roth.