Researchers Create Electronic Peelable Stickers for the Internet of Things

Billions of objects ranging from smartphones and watches to buildings, machine parts and medical devices have become wireless sensors, creating what we call the Internet of Things. As society moves toward connecting all objects to the internet, the technology that enables these objects to communicate and sense each other will need to scale up.

Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Virginia have developed a new fabrication method that makes tiny, thin-film electronic circuits peelable from a surface. The technique not only eliminates several manufacturing steps and the associated costs, but also allows any object to sense its environment or be controlled through the application of a high-tech sticker. Eventually, these stickers could also facilitate wireless communication. The researchers demonstrated capabilities on various objects in a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most of today’s electronic circuits are individually built on their own silicon “wafer,” a flat and rigid substrate. The silicon wafer can then withstand the high temperatures and chemical etching that are used to remove the circuits from the wafer. But high temperatures and etching damage the silicon wafer, forcing the manufacturing process to accommodate an entirely new wafer each time.

The new fabrication technique, called “transfer printing,” cuts down manufacturing costs by using a single wafer to build a nearly infinite number of thin films holding electronic circuits. Instead of high temperatures and chemicals, the film can peel off at room temperature with the energy-saving help of simply water. Submerging the wafer and completed circuit in water significantly reduces the mechanical peeling stress and is environmentally friendly.

A ductile metal layer, such as nickel, inserted between the electronic film and the silicon wafer, makes the peeling possible in water. These thin-film electronics can then be trimmed and pasted onto any surface, granting that object electronic features. Putting one of the stickers on a flower pot, for example, made that flower pot capable of sensing temperature changes that could affect the plant’s growth. The researchers also demonstrated that the components of electronic integrated circuits work just as well before and after they were made into a thin film peeled from a silicon wafer. The researchers used one film to turn on and off an LED light display.

The technology now holds a non-provisional U.S. patent. The work was supported by the Purdue Research Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL-S-114-054-002), the National Science Foundation (NSF-CMMI-1728149) and the University of Virginia.