Conductive inks are a long-established technology, with silver flake-based inks used extensively in multiple industries, including solar panels and glucose test strips. However, technology rarely stands still, and there is extensive innovation within the conductive ink space. Particle-free inks are an especially promising example with multiple advantages and applications.
In a particle-free ink, a solvated metal salt is reduced in-situ to produce a metal. In complete contrast to more conventional conductive inks, this means that the uncured particle-free ink is often transparent. The chemical reaction is induced by heat, light or plasma, and produces a smooth conductive metal layer.
Conductivity close to bulk metals
High conductivity is a key advantage of particle-free inks. Because the metal is formed in-situ, and the proportion of binder materials can be very low, conductivity can be as high as 80% of the bulk metal. This, of course, means that less ink can be used, with the additional benefit of there being less solvent to evaporate away during curing.
Permeability for e-textiles
Combining electronic functionality with textiles promises sensing of biometric parameters in a comfortable, conformal manner. While there are many different strategies to make fabrics conductive, such as applying inks printed onto a stretchable substrate, particle-free inks are well suited to directly printing on textiles. Unlike flake-based stretchable inks, their low viscosity and lack of particles enables particle-free inks to permeate textile fibers. Once the ink is metalized by curing, the fibers themselves become conductive, thus retaining the breathability and stretchability of the original fabric.
Highly smooth surfaces
A classic school chemistry experiment is using Tollens’ reagent to produce a silver mirror on the inside of a test tube using a reducing agent (see left-hand picture) – this process is similar to that employed with particle-free silver inks. The reflectiveness of the silver coating is due to its smooth surface, which is a key benefit of particle-free inks over their flake-based and even nanoparticle-based alternatives.
Low viscosity enables emerging printing methods
Given the outlined attributes, we suggest that the following applications are especially well suited to particle-free conductive inks:
- Electromagnetic interference shielding.
- High-resolution printing for advanced semiconductor packaging.
- Printing directly onto fabrics.
Furthermore, particle-free inks can also be used for applications currently dominated by flake or nanoparticle-based conductive inks.