Summary:

Sheets of plastic are embedded with flat radios based on technology developed in the 1920s. A team at Princeton expects to have a prototype ready next month.

Princeton University professors James Sturm, Naveen Verma and Sigurd Wagner
photo: Frank Wojciechowski

Electronics are getting smaller and smaller, but not at Princeton University. Researchers there are working on sheets of plastic that contain huge, embedded radios based on technology developed in the 1920s.

The plastic sheets are as thin as paper and flexible, which means they can be applied to walls or uneven surfaces. They can also be painted over and be energy-independent by utilizing built-in solar cells. They are capable of taking in environmental data and wireless communication.

“We originally built this for energy management in a smart building,” electrical engineering assistant professor Naveen Verma said in a release. “Temperature sensors and occupancy sensors communicate with a central management system using distributed radio arrays that are patterned on wallpaper.”

Princeton electrical engineering graduate students (from left) Liechao Huang, Josue Sanz Robinson and Warren Rieutort-Louis with a radio built into a thin sheet of plastic. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton electrical engineering graduate students (from left) Liechao Huang, Josue Sanz Robinson and Warren Rieutort-Louis with a radio built into a thin sheet of plastic. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Due to complications associated with working with plastic, the researchers had to use low-quality transistors that slowed the speed at which electricity moved through the electronics. They incorporated radio technology developed in the 1920s that allows electricity to bypass the transistors, improving the speed. The 1920s era electronics are very large, especially when flattened and spread out, but that isn’t a big deal when you’re working on the scale of a wall instead of a tiny computer chip.

The researchers are now working to adapt the technology to large structures like bridges and buildings.

“The problem is that many failures develop over large areas and you cannot detect that at an early stage,” civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Branko Glišic said in the release. “In this large area of structure, which is really huge, the problem can start at virtually any point, and if you don’t have sensors at that point, you are not likely to find the problem before the damage becomes substantial.”

They expect to have a prototype next month, but will need several more years to develop it into a finalized product.

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