Using new types of carbon molecules to produce a flexible, conductive film could soon render almost all surfaces able to react to human touch.
Making computer technology available on all types of surfaces by creating surfaces that react to a person’s touch is a major focus of current research. Researchers in Montreal have already perfected technology that can embed laser-written sensors directly in your smartphone screen, with the potential to extend computer functionality to all types of glass screens.
Now Finnish startup Canatu has been developing a new approach based on carbon nanobuds, which at nanoscopic scale look rather like a tube with a sort of ball bearing attached that, when made into film, can transform any surface of whatsoever shape – curved or straight – into an electronic touchscreen. Touchscreens are usually made of a transparent sheet spattered with indium tin oxide molecules. But this ‘tin-doped indium’ alloy is fragile and can only be used on flat surfaces.
Nanotubes have for a long time been regarded as a potential alternative to indium tin oxide but they have not proved sufficiently good conductors of electricity to ensure high-quality performance on touchscreens. This realisation is what prompted the Canatu team to work with nanobuds, whose tiny ‘bearings’ are highly conductive of electricity.
The startup has set up its own manufacturing facility, which currently turns out sufficient film to cover tens of thousands of smartphone touchscreens, and the company is planning to produce enough to cover millions by 2015.
The technology cannot yet be used for large-sized touchscreens because of its high cost, but nowadays millions of touchscreens are being produced every day and the emergence of the Internet of Things is bound to speed up demand for screens that can operate on all types of surface.
Canatu’s main innovation is to make touchscreen technology available on flexible surfaces. The company, which has already raised capital worth $18 million from investors since it was founded in 2004, claims that due to the higher conductivity of the nanobuds, its film can be bent back on itself to well over 180º without affecting the image quality being transmitted through the surface, whereas reactive surfaces created using currently available technologies provide much less flexibility.