Spray-on antennas could unlock potential of smart, connected technology

Spray-on antennas could unlock potential of smart, connected technology
Researchers from Drexel University’s College of Engineering have developed a way to “spray paint” invisibly thin antennas from a type of two-dimensional material called MXene. The antennas perform as well or better than the ones currently used in mobile devices and RFID tags. Credit: Drexel University – Kanit Hantanasirisakul

The promise of wearables, functional fabrics, the Internet of Things, and their “next-generation” technological cohort seems tantalizingly within reach. But researchers in the field will tell you a prime reason for their delayed “arrival” is the problem of seamlessly integrating connection technology—namely, antennas—with shape-shifting and flexible “things.”

But a breakthrough by researchers in Drexel’s College of Engineering could now make installing an antenna as easy as applying some bug spray.

In research recently published in Science Advances, the group reports on a method for spraying invisibly thin antennas, made from a type of two-dimensional, metallic material called MXene, that perform as well as those being used in mobile devices, wireless routers, and portable transducers.

“This is a very exciting finding because there is a lot of potential for this type of technology,” said Kapil Dandekar, Ph.D., a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, who directs the Drexel Wireless Systems Lab, and was a co-author of the research. “The ability to spray an antenna on a flexible substrate or make it optically transparent means that we could have a lot of new places to set up networks—there are new applications and new ways of collecting data that we can’t even imagine at the moment.”

The researchers, from the College’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, report that the MXene titanium carbide can be dissolved in water to create an ink or paint. The exceptional conductivity of the material enables it to transmit and direct radio waves, even when it’s applied in a very thin coating.

“We found that even transparent antennas with thicknesses of tens of nanometers were able to communicate efficiently,” said Asia Sarycheva, a doctoral candidate in the A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute and Materials Science and Engineering Department. “By increasing the thickness up to 8 microns, the performance of MXene antenna achieved 98 percent of its predicted maximum value.”

Preserving transmission quality in a form this thin is significant because it would allow antennas to easily be embedded—literally, sprayed on—in a wide variety of objects and surfaces without adding additional weight or circuitry or requiring a certain level of rigidity.

“This technology could enable the truly seamless integration of antennas with everyday objects which will be critical for the emerging Internet of Things,” Dandekar said. “Researchers have done a lot of work with non-traditional materials trying to figure out where manufacturing technology meets system needs, but this technology could make it a lot easier to answer some of the difficult questions we’ve been working on for years.”

Read more: Spray-on antennas could unlock the potential of smart, connected technology

Image courtesy of phys.org

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