Taiwan Researchers Turn to Silk for Flexible E-devices

Researchers at a Taiwan university said on Thursday they had found a way to use silk membranes in flexible electronic devices and started talks with manufacturers about adopting the unusual but cheap material.

After less than two years of study motivated by news that silk had untapped properties, an engineering professor and two post-graduate students at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University figured out how to use the soft, low-cost material for flexible e-book readers, LED displays and radio-frequency identification tools.

The technology turns liquid silk into membranes that work as insulators for flexible thin-film transistors, a component of bendable electronics, said the professor, Hwang Jenn-Chang. Those membranes may even improve the speed and performance of a device's transistors.

National Tsing Hua University is located in Hsinchu, often called the Silicon Valley of Taiwan because it is home to a number of technology manufacturers. Silk, a natural protein fiber normally used in textiles, can be easily purchased on the island. The material would cost about NT$10 (about US$0.03) per device.

"We didn't know at first that it would be the best material, but after a few months of tests we realized it was quite viable," Hwang said. "No one else has thought to try this, or at least no one else has succeeded."

As companies such as Archos and Asustek Computer introduce new e-reader models to compete with Amazon's latest Kindle, and as prices fall with the rise in market entries, designers are likely to be sniffing around for new materials.

Accordingly, Tsing Hua's researchers are talking with manufacturers about putting their discovery to commercial use, Hwang said.

Academic researchers in Taiwan have also produced a face-recognition vending machine, one of the world's fastest supercomputers and a webcam-mounted laptop antenna for scanning library documents. Some of the island's inventions are mass-produced by the makers of PCs or consumer electronics.

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