£4m project aims for environmentally friendly circuit boards with metamaterials

A more environmentally friendly way to produce printed circuit boards for mobile phones and other electronic devices is being developed by researchers in the UK.

The SYMETA – Synthesising 3D metamaterials for Radio Frequency (RF), microwave and Terahertz (THz) applications – programme, being funded by a £3.9m grant from EPSRC, is aiming to develop a new way to design and fabricate high frequency communications circuitry and transmission lines.

Existing methods used to manufacture and assemble printed circuit boards, such as etching, are extremely damaging to the environment, involving harsh chemicals, high temperatures and high volumes of water.

By using metamaterials – engineered composites with electromagnetic properties not found in nature – the research team, led by Prof Yiannis Vardaxoglou at Loughborough University, plan to build circuits without the use of these harsh processes.

The researchers plan to develop materials capable of being printed onto a surface through a nozzle. Using 3D printing techniques to build high frequency circuits with metamaterials should reduce the number of manufacturing stages involved, and also the number of components needed.

The technique will also allow the researchers to produce circuit boards with unusual shapes.

Metamaterials have complex internal structures on scales smaller than the wavelength of the light they interact with, allowing them to produce unusual effects.

The materials give researchers a new platform to create functional properties, said Prof Ian Reaney at Sheffield University, who is involved in the project, which also includes the Universities of Exeter, Oxford, and Queen Mary, University of London.

“The metamaterial can create new functionalities, so it can create different frequencies for an antenna, for example, or we can do things in a much more confined space that would take a large volume to do with a conventional material,” he said

“It gives you a new toolkit, particularly if you are dealing with optical and RF devices, which rely on the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter.”

The metamaterial circuitry could be used in the aerospace, space, healthcare and defence industries.

The programme is part of a £21m investment by the EPSRC into research aiming to tackle some of the major challenges facing science and engineering.