May 20, 2003 

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Smart Ink (video)
February 27, 2003

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Interviewee: C. Jeffrey Brinker, Sandia National Laboratories

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Produced by Ann Marie Cunningham

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Elsewhere on the web

Brinker receives DOE award for innovations in nanostructured materials.

University of New Mexico team wins National Collegiate Inventors Competition

Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley to print out fully-assembled gadgets

Imagine printing out tiny chips, sensors or other electronic devices on paper - from your home computer.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, materials scientist C. Jeffrey Brinker has come up with “intelligent inks” that could let you do that.


From Inkjet Printer to Super Printer

What if your standard inkjet printer could turn out much smaller, cheaper, better electronic devices? At Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M., C. Jeffrey Brinker uses familiar office equipment to work on nanotechnology in new ways.

On his laptop computer, Brinker can design a tiny device. Then he replaces the ink in a regular inkjet printer cartridge with his “intelligent inks”. Once he clicks on “Print,” his printer produces his new device. Brinker says you can write with his “intelligent inks” the same way you might with regular ink: with a small dip pen, a fountain pen, or any standard printer.

Brinker’s inks make structures on the nanoscale by taking advantage of molecular self-assembly, which means the tendency of some molecules to form orderly patterns on their own. You can see molecular self-assembly at work whenever you use detergent. Detergent molecules form spheres with an exterior that likes water, and an interior that shrinks as far away from water as possible. The interior absorbs dirt and grease, and the exterior allows you to rinse it away with water.

Brinker makes his inks by adding certain self-assembling molecules - they could be proteins, yeasts or plastics - to a solvent. Just as regular ink has to dry, Brinker’s “intelligent inks” must dry. As the solvent evaporates, he says, the detergent-like molecules “spontaneously organize themselves into elaborate nanostructures. They could take on the form of honeycombs or miniature jungle gyms or even structures that look like tumbleweed. You can make a simple device that would have some sensitivity, just by writing it or printing it on a piece of paper or silicon or glass.”

Soon, this very simple process will become what Brinker refers to as “color inkjet printing.” Because one ink cannot produce a device that works several ways, he plans to start printing with several different inks at once. Every ink will have a different “color” or function. To better control the printing, he says, “we decapitated the printing head from the rest of a standard printer, and we’ve put it on a platform that has a more sophisticated ability to aim different ‘colors’ of ink at particular spots.” This more complex printer, he predicts, will print out devices with more elaborate electronic or optical properties.

Brinker’s work is funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).



by Ann Marie Cunningham


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