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Silver pen allows electrical circuits to be handwritten on paper and other surfaces


June 28, 2011

The silver pen can write electric circuits and interconnects directly on paper and other surfaces (Image: Bok Yeop Ahn)

The silver pen can write electric circuits and interconnects directly on paper and other surfaces (Image: Bok Yeop Ahn)

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People have been using pens to jot down their thoughts for thousands of years but now engineers at the University of Illinois have developed a silver-inked rollerball pen that allows users to jot down electrical circuits and interconnects on paper, wood and other surfaces. Looking just like a regular ballpoint pen, the pen's ink consists of a solution of real silver that dries to leave electrically conductive silver pathways. These pathways maintain their conductivity through multiple bends and folds of the paper, enabling users to personally fabricate low-cost, flexible and disposable electronic devices.

While metallic inks have been used to manufacture electronic devices using inkjet printing technology, the silver pen offers users the freedom and flexibility to construct electronic devices on the fly, says Jennifer Lewis, the Hans Thurnauer professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois who led the research team along with Jennifer Bernhard, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"The key advantage of the pen is that the costly printers and printheads typically required for inkjet or other printing approaches are replaced with an inexpensive, hand-held writing tool," said Lewis. "This is an important step toward enabling desktop manufacturing (or personal fabrication) using very low cost, ubiquitous printing tools."

The researchers have used the pen to create a flexible LED display on paper, conductive text and three-dimensional radio-frequency antennas. They now plan to expand the palette of inks to enable pen-on-paper writing of other electronic and ionically conductive materials.

While the pen is likely to prove attractive to electrical engineers and hobbyists, the researchers have also highlighted the potential of the device for creating art. Using the pen to sketch a copy of the painting "Sae-Han-Do" by Jung Hee Kim, which portrays a house, trees and Chinese text, the researchers used the ink as wiring for an LED mounted on the roof of the house that was powered by a five-volt battery connected to the edge of the painting.

The University of Illinois team's research appears in the journal Advanced Materials.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

What kind of solvent does this use? In the past, effective silver \"ink\" has come in pretty toxic solutions.

Charles Bosse

Where do i order?

Filipe Varela

Jeff, that is to repair damaged PCBs, and could be used on paper. But, if the ink your talking about is put on paper, and bent, will its conductivity sustain itself? will the electronic pathway still be intact?

Austin Brown

This is nothing new. Conductive pens have been around for a long time, ostensibly to replace damaged traces on regular PCBs. I don\'t see how this pen is any different.

Jeff Katz

@Austin: Yes it will.

There are cheap pens at Farnell (Newark Direct) (cheap being 10 to 15 euro) that will leave a semi-hard substrate that may tear in tight corners (though slight flexibility is there). But there are chemical suppliers that have been selling these kinds of gel-based carbon-silver hybrid pens for over 10 years at twice or three times the cost, but these will stay in tact around very tight corners and work perfectly fine on paper, even the more porous sketching paper.

That said, this being a normal kind of gel-ball-point I would be interested in sampling it to compare, because there is certainly room for improvement in the ergonomics department.

Facebook User

Is it on the market?

Marco Righetto

Austin, yes it will. The pens put out by Caig use silver in an epoxy so it flexes just fine without breaking the circuit.

Bobby Lee

Circuit writing is very, very old and silver has been a common material because of it\'s unique properties. I had a silver ink pen at one time. Thomas Edison, in 1904, proposed applying silver traces to linen cloth to make flexible circuits and this is documented in a letter. Tom suggested using a silver salt solution and then reducing to pure silver once applied.

Ken Gilleo

How do you do circuits where one trace has to cross over but not connect to another?

Gregg Eshelman

Gregg, Try a piece of tape.

Ronald Grover

@Gregg You can\'t without sending one signal around the other. Thats why most circuit boards are at least 2 layers. That means using via\'s (a bit of wire that connects one layer of copper with another) you can go around the trace. In this case think pin prick through the paper and fill with silver ink and then continue on other side.

Alternatively put a component over the trace to carry the current. 0 ohm resistors for example or a bit of insulated wire.

David Stanton

@gregg try a piece of matte finished scotch tape over the lower trace, draw over the tape. may take paper tape if the ink doesn\'t like the plastic.

seems like a nice idea but as many others have said...nothing really new.

Byron Morgan

@Bobby Lee and anyone who might know....if this pen is written on clothing, is the silver ink washable?

Alan Greenspan

Is this the same product as Circuit Scribe reported in Gizmag http://www.gizmag.com/electroninks-circuit-scribe/29973/ ?

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