New Material Extends the Life of Touch Screen Devices

If the letter “e” goes dead on the touch screen of an iPhone, Tablet PC, or other mobile device, a recycling or trash bin is the next stop. A supermarket touch screen wears out after about 50,000 uses. Alex Jen, Professor and Chair of Materials Science and Engineering, is developing new technology to extend the durability of these products, no small goal given the burgeoning market for touch screens.

Jen and his team are developing a transparent organic electrode film to replace indium tin oxide (ITO), a brittle and expensive material now used in about 90 percent of touch screens, flat panel displays and TVs, and portable electronics. His hybrid electrode unites conductive organic polymer with a metal grid of silver or copper.

“This material will be much cheaper to produce than ITO by using a roll-to-roll printing process as in printing newspapers. It has excellent transparency and is so flexible it can even be incorporated in rollup displays,” Jen said.

In 2009, the UW Center for Commercialization awarded Jen a Commercialization Gap Fund award to conduct a market analysis. The UW Center for Commercialization has filed patent applications, connected him with potential investors and manufacturers, and is guiding establishment of a spinoff company.

“The UW Center for Commercialization has been very helpful in providing seed funding and connecting us with the business world, especially helping us to identify potential target markets and advisors who can help steer the company. Technology Manager Bolong Cao was critical in putting together a team of advisors that has enabled us to move from research to startup. The team identified the first application among the many potential directions and brought clarity to the strategy,” Jen said.

With an infusion of capital and progression to licensing and manufacture, Jen’s innovation could be on the market within three to five years, extending the lifespan of the letter “e” and its cohorts, and the billions of touch-screen and electronic devices consumers rely on daily.