graphic of body suit incorporating wearable electronicsResearch into wearable electronics got a boost with a grant to purchase a system that can turn metals into vapours for application to a variety of surfaces.

Evaporation system to advance development of stretchable electronics

A multi-disciplinary team of UWindsor researchers, whose research explores creating electronic materials and devices that can be stretched, is getting a new tool to help advance their work in designing soft electronics.

When designing stretchable and bendable electronics, researchers must be able to layer different types of materials with metals and other organic substances. This can prove tricky, but with a new electron beam evaporator, turning metals into vapours will be possible with the flip of a switch.

The team received $150,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for a 2023 Research Tools and Instrumentation grant. This will be supplemented with $70,289 from the Faculty of Science and the Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation.

The electron beam evaporator uses the physical vapour deposition method to coat soft rubbery materials with functional materials.

“This critical piece of equipment allows us to take a material and convert it into a thin film,” says lead grant applicant Tricia Carmichael, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“For example, this instrument allows us to take a piece of gold, heat it up until it’s a vapour and then deposit it on any surface.”

This instrument will expand the range of materials they can deposit to include organic materials, which will support and advance their research programs in organic electronics. The instrument will also advance their cutting-edge research in wearable electronics, conjugated polymers, sensors, printed electronics, and more.

The team includes chemistry and biochemistry’s Simon Rondeau-Gagné and engineering’s Jalal Ahamed.

“Our group of researchers all collaborate together, and we co-supervise a student, this machine will really advance all of our team efforts in soft electronics,” Dr. Carmichael says.

“Without this capability, the development of new materials and devices for emerging applications in these fields is almost impossible.”

Their current out-of-date electron beam evaporator is severely limited in comparison. For example, it is also configured to work only with metals and Dr. Rondeau-Gagné’s lab works with organic electronics.

“It has a lot of a capabilities in terms of reliability and that will make a big difference to us,” says Carmichael. “This will allow us to work with more sensitive softer materials so it will really open up different directions for our wearable work and our soft sensing and things we’re working on together.”

Currently the researchers can easily damage the surface of soft sensitive materials but the controlled evaporation rate on the new machine will allow materials to cool properly.

“This new machine has a cooling stage, so to be able to keep this part cool will help protect your material or your substrate or whatever you’re working on,” she says.

The new system will be housed in the Essex Centre of Research (CORe), a collaborative shared research space, allowing students to receive a hands-on experience on this advanced tool.

“This is big,” Carmichael says. “This is going to give us so many capabilities that we just don’t have.”

—Sara Elliott