Nanotechnology has repeatedly contributed to a new look at the solutions that so far we have used, among others, in production. In the electronics industry, printing with the use of nanomaterials, including carbon, offers a lot of new possibilities - and these are attractive in terms of costs. We talk with Adam Szatkowski and Lech Kalinowski from a Polish company Panamint about printed flexible electronics, the interface between science and business, and cooperation in the world of 3W.
Printed flexible electronics still sounds a bit exotic. Can you explain what it is about and where does the need to look for such a solution come from?
Lech Kalinowski: It is true that public awareness of printed electronics in Poland is rather low. On the other hand, Germany or the Nordic countries have been wanting to introduce such technologies to the market for several years now - a very strong trend can be seen in this regard. And all because of a paradigm shift in the production of electronics, the vast majority of which are currently produced in Asia. There are problems with the availability of, for example, microcontrollers that come to us from Taiwan, which is why both the Americans and the British want to produce locally. However, this is a very expensive idea - building a microcontroller factory in Europe or the USA is billions of dollars, and the costs should also include specialised personnel who have experience in producing such devices. Manufacturers would like to create them in small printing workshops, i.e. print them with silver ink based on nanoparticles. So it seems that we are at the right moment, because we see great opportunities and market needs.
Adam Szatkowski: For some time we have been talking with partners about the market needs in the context of changes that occur in production when natural resources are depleted. Since each of us has several decades of experience in the field of nanomaterials and nanotechnology, we thought we could make use of it. The company was established over 2 years ago. With the help of nanotechnology, incl. carbon nanomaterials, we decided to develop flexible electronics that would be as functional as traditional, but the production of which would consume less materials and which we would ultimately use in industries or areas where it has not existed so far. Our idea was to introduce a new quality and new technology related to electronics - it was to be printed, cheap, and widely used, it was to use as little material as possible and, in addition, be recyclable. This is how our product was created: we produce inks using carbon materials - graphene or nanotubes. We use these inks as print paths for sensors, which we also create, as well as flexible batteries.
As for the production itself, how does this technology differ from the traditional one? Do you use less materials?
L.K.: To illustrate the difference, I will use the example of a battery. Ordinary batteries, the so-called “penlight batteries”: have a lot of elements that require a lot of work and energy in the production process. The coat itself is made of metal; there are, among others, zinc barrier, graphite rod inside, and closed electrolyte – in a different medium, depending on the type of the battery. However, if the battery is fully printed - we have electrodes, which we print on a flat material that can be an organic membrane. We want our solutions to be environmentally friendly, which is why we use fully organic carriers, i.e. paints and inks without hazardous solvents. Carbon is an excellent semiconductor, so we use a lot of it, primarily in printed circuit boards and electrodes for printed batteries.
In which industries can your solutions be used?
A.S: There are several industries in which we see the potential of using our technology. We can print a sensor that will power itself and give some feedback, e.g. information that the product has broken down and needs to be removed from the batch being shipped. We are already implementing such a solution in the food industry. We are also thinking about wide applications in medicine. We develop tattoos that can be stuck to the patient’s skin. Thanks to them, it will be possible to read skin humidity, body temperature, or other parameters, which would be especially important in the aspect of COVID. We can also see a wide application in the cosmetics industry: for marking and protecting premium products. We are also at the stage of testing and working on a product for the chemical industry - we cannot reveal the details of its application due to the signed contract and confidentiality obligation. Of course, an important direction of development is the electronics industry, where our flexible batteries can be used.
Do you use the support of the world of science?
L.K.: At Panamint, we view science from the angle of business. It is true that both me and my partners have academic degrees, but in addition to that, we have been in business for a very long time. The three of us complement each other when it comes to our competences. As for printed electronics, its scope is so wide that one needs to have interdisciplinary knowledge and skills: in the field of electronics itself (that is at least programming of microcontrollers), hybrid electronics, design, and chemistry as a multidirectional field. Here we need all the scientific knowledge: about paints, inks, the production of nanoparticles, how to synthesise them, what carriers to use, etc. However, we do not make technology for the sake of making it, but we adapt it to the needs of the business. Cooperation with science is important - especially in research conducted by universities. We are based on the campus of the University of Silesia, so we are close to science - if we need, for example, microscopy or more advanced activities, we outsource them to our colleagues just around the corner.
You also popularise knowledge about nanotechnologies. What are you doing in this regard?
A.S.: In addition to my business activities, I have been running the Nanonet Foundation for fifteen years. It is a non-governmental organisation that brings together science and business in the area of nanotechnology. It is the originator of the Silesian Nano Cluster, which brings together ninety companies, several scientific and research units, incl. the University of Silesia, the Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals, and the Silesian University of Technology - here we also come into contact with science. The co-founder of the Cluster is also the city of Katowice, i.e. the local government. Thanks to this, we can exchange not only our experience, but also knowledge: we use the available scientific literature or standardisation, which is currently available in the Polish Committee for Standardisation; representatives of the Nanonet Foundation are also members of this Committee. Many times we have participated in providing opinions on standards at the European level in terms of the application and use of nanotechnology in industry. We also operate in areas related to planning and analysis of nanotechnology development trends.
Panamint has joined the world of 3W. How will the 3W Idea contribute to the development of your business?
A.S.: I think that, first of all, we can complement each other when it comes to knowledge and we can use our competences to inform and verify information on the use of nanomaterials. The more people learn about these technologies, including carbon technologies, the more entrepreneurs get interested in them, the better. What is also very valuable to us is the opportunity to exchange experiences with research units or entrepreneurs who also operate in the area of 3W and want to develop.