Research facility PARC, home of the laser printer, Ethernet, graphical user interface and the Alto computer has provided a look at the future: printable electronics that could someday go to space.
For the last four months, a PARC team has been working with NASA on printing heat and light sensors that would be ideal for the environment on the surface of Mars. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory lead researcher, Kendra Short, said that they will eventually be able to print electronics that take in solar energy, communicate wirelessly and more.
The electronics are printed on thin plastic sheets. Ideally, they could be printed in space and work on the surface of Mars (or on any mission). Information such as heat or light would be picked up by the sensors and then communicated wirelessly back to Earth.
The project is part of a larger goal of NASA: print an entire spacecraft. PARC is working with them on phase two of this mission, which will last 14 months and result in working printed electronics. NASA plans to partner with Boeing to test the electronics’ compatibility with harsh environmental conditions (such as radiation, high and low temperature and a vacuum) upon the development of the technology.
Printed electronics are common in consumer devices and products, however, most are made with inkjet printers that print with specialized ink. The printer at PARC uses gravure printing – big cylinders that could rapidly press ink onto plastic, similar to how newspapers are printed. This process opens a faster and cheaper avenue to print electronics.
In the more distant future, a smaller electronics printer could be packed abroad a spacecraft and print electronics on demand, much like the 3D printer that will board the International Space Station next year.
Janos Veres, Electronic Mateirals and Devices Laboratory lead, said that one of the benefits that comes with printed electronics is that there is no waste. With traditional manufacturing, you have to wash away chemicals and other residue once the electronics are complete. This is especially beneficial in outer space because there is no extra material or disposal for an astronaut to worry about. Furthermore, this means electronics manufacturers will no longer have to worry about building parts that can withstand the vibration and other rigors of the launch into space.