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Xerox hopes to print computing smarts on fabric, plastic

Company says its new silver-based ink can be used to print electronic circuitry on everything from flexible e-book screens to pill bottles.

And you thought computer chips were pervasive now.

In conjunction with a conference in Europe this week, Xerox has announced a new ink technology for printing electronic circuitry on everything from clothes to roll-up computer displays.

Xerox's process uses ink containing silver metal that can be used to wire up processing circuitry. It works on surfaces such as plastic that earlier have shown an inconvenient tendency to melt under the high temperature of liquid silver; Xerox's process works with an ink compound with a much lower temperature, the company said.

Xerox's process can print fine details of electronic circuitry on flexible plastic.
Xerox's process can print fine details of electronic circuitry on flexible plastic. Xerox

"We've found the silver bullet that could make things like electronic clothing and inexpensive games a reality today. This breakthrough means the industry now has the capability to print electronics on a wider range of materials and at a lower cost," said Paul Smith, laboratory manager, Xerox Research Centre of Canada, in a statement. Smith is discussing the technology at the Printed Electronics Europe conference in Dresden, Germany.

So what might use it? Inexpensive e-book readers with flexible plastic displays, for one. Radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags, for another. Or smart pill dispensers that can help keep you taking your medicine at the appropriate pace.

The technology uses conventional inkjet printing methods, and though Xerox has used it with conventional desktop printers, the company expects that it would use continuous-feed printers that print on rolls rather than sheets of material. It doesn't require the super-clean environments needed for conventional silicon chip manufacturing.

The Xerox process actually requires printing three layers on a substrate: a semiconductor, a conductor and a dielectric. The silver ink is the layer that conducts electricity.

The silver ink technology now is available for testing by outside parties, and manufacturing the materials at production volumes isn't far off.