Silver nanowires show suitability for flexible electronics

A study into the mechanical properties of silver nanowire has revealed properties that make the nanostructure suited to flexible electronics.

Indium tin oxide is currently one of the most widely used materials for touchscreens, plasma displays, and flexible electronics due to its high electrical conductivity and optical transparency but its escalating price has forced the electronics industry to seek alternatives.

One potential and more cost-effective alternative is a film made with silver nanowires embedded in flexible polymers. Like indium tin oxide, this material is transparent and conductive but development has stalled because scientists lack a fundamental understanding of its mechanical properties.

Now Horacio Espinosa, the James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, has led research that expands the understanding of silver nanowires’ behaviour in electronics.

Espinosa and his team investigated the material’s cyclic loading, which shows how the material reacts to fluctuating loads of stress.

‘Cyclic loading is an important material behaviour that must be investigated for realising the potential applications of using silver nanowires in electronics,’ Espinosa said in a statement. ‘Knowledge of such behaviour allows designers to understand how these conductive films fail and how to improve their durability.’

By varying the tension on silver nanowires thinner than 120nm and monitoring their deformation with electron microscopy, the research team characterised the cyclic mechanical behaviour.

They found that permanent deformation was partially recoverable in the studied nanowires with results indicating that silver nanowires could potentially withstand strong cyclic loads for long periods of time, which is a key attribute needed for flexible electronics.

‘These silver nanowires show mechanical properties that are quite unexpected,’ Espinosa said. ‘We had to develop new experimental techniques to be able to measure this novel material property.’

The findings were recently featured in Nano Letters. Other Northwestern co-authors on the paper are Rodrigo Bernal, a recently graduated PhD student in Espinosa’s lab, and Jiaxing Huang, associate professor of materials science and engineering in McCormick.

‘The next step is to understand how this recovery influences the behaviour of these materials when they are flexed millions of times,’ said Bernal, first author of the paper.