Nanowires could lead to foldable tablets, say researchers

Copper nanotechnology might be used in future iPads, flexible displays and solar cells

Scientists at Duke University have figured out how to make large quantities of copper nanowires that can be used to make computers and maybe even bendable, foldable tablet computers someday.

Copper nanowires, which are so tiny that they are transparent to the naked eye, could replace indium tin oxide, which is currently used to connect electronic pixels that produce images in flat-panel TVs, computers, thin-film solar cells and flexible displays, Duke researchers say.

Copper, which is cheaper, more efficient and a thousand times more abundant than indium, can produce nanowires that are also are much less brittle than indium tin oxide, making them capable of building flexible screens and devices, Duke contends.

"Imagine a foldable iPad," said Benjamin Wiley, assistant professor of chemistry at Duke University, in a statement. "If we are going to have these ubiquitous electronics and solar cells, we need to use materials that are abundant in the earth's crust and don't take much energy to extract."

Combining copper and nanotechnology fits that bill.

The copper is used to make a film of nanowires that is both transparent and conductive, Duke says. The nanowires are grown in a water-based solution and scientists can control the shape of the nanostructures by adding different chemicals to the solution.

Duke researchers have created a system in which the copper crystallizes in the solution, forming tiny "seeds." Then a nanowire sprouts from each seed. "It's a mechanism of crystal growth that has never been observed before," Duke noted in a recent release.

Efforts to meld nanotechnology and computer technology have shown some promising results in the last several years. In 2007, Michael Zaiser, a professor and researcher at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering and Electronics, said supercomputers small enough to fit into the palm of your hand could be here as early as 2017.

In 2008, IBM announced that its scientists were working on a way to use DNA, viruses and nanotechnology to build smaller, more efficient computer chips.

And in January of this year, researchers at Stanford University announced that they had used nanotechnology to create lightweight and bendable batteries out of paper. The university noted that the paper batteries are designed to be folded, crumpled or even soaked in an acidic solution and still work.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

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