Flexible Electronics One of Air Force's Newest Technologies

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

WRIGHT-PATTERSON ARI FORCE BASE -- Air Force researchers have helped create flexible hybrid electronics that could bring a new wave of electronics and wearable devices in sports, medicine, aviation, the military and other industries, they say.

Flexible electronics inside thin ribbons of foldable, bendable and stretchable plastic-like materials replace rigid circuit boards, which take up far more space and need more protection. The new materials conform to vehicles such as aircraft or even human skin, engineers say.

"What we're trying to enable is a new generation of electronics," said Benjamin J. Leever, a lead materials engineer on the project at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at Wright-Patterson.

"The universe is quite wide because the applications are so broad," said Heidi Hoffman, senior director of the FlexTech Alliance, a San Jose, Calif.-based initiative to build a flexible electronics industry in the United States.

"For these new kinds of systems that we're talking about, we think it's going to transform the way the Air Force operates," Leever said.

Building an industry

The Defense Department has chosen AFRL, in cooperation with the Army, to manage a five-year, $75 million technology development initiative dubbed the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a consortium of more than 160 universities, companies, and non-profit organizations.

The money is part of more than $170 million pledged in the public-private partnership led by FlexTech Alliance.

"We have a lot of proof of concept demonstrations, but the challenge is the manufacturing processes today are inadequate to get from the kind of proof of concept demos we do here in the lab to products that companies can manufacture," Leever said.

One challenge is to bring the cost of 3-D printed and flexible electronics lower, Hoffman said.

"It's promising, but no huge markets yet," she said. "... The manufacturing of it has not reached the stage where it has dropped in price to where we know it could be. What we're going to do is drive down that curve for all of the different applications."

In northeast Ohio, a cluster of universities and companies have positioned themselves to grow in the emerging industry, particularly in biomedical uses, said Timothy E. Fahey, interim vice president of cluster acceleration at Team NEO, a private economic development group in Cleveland.

"There's a real powerhouse of capability here, that's why we think this is very impactful for our region," Fahey said

Tech to troops

Michael Durstock, an AFRL research team leader for flexible materials and devices, said additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, of flexible electronics could get parts to troops in the field faster.

"We're transforming the way the military operates in the sense that we're responding in real time (to) threats and needs that the military has and rapidly providing the users, the warfighters with ... new capabilities and new technologies," he said.

Researchers envision flexible hybrid electronics in wearable devices that track an airman's or athlete's fatigue and hydration, or could replace a maze of wires and medical equipment to monitor patients in hospital rooms.

Pilots could be monitored too, Leever said.

"There are not sensors that monitor the state of the pilot, so we don't know if that pilot is performing optimally," he said.

The technology could be used to create flexible batteries or lower the weight of devices airmen and soldiers carry onto the battlefield, researchers said.

"One of the biggest needs is about size, power and weight," Leever said.

"What that's really going to mean is an airman, a soldier, a Marine is always going to carry something like 100 pounds because they're always going to take as many capabilities into the fight as they can. But by lightening their radios, lightening their batteries, we can let them take additional resources into the fight to give them the extra advantage over their adversaries."

Flexible electronics sensors inside jet engines or embedded in bridges, just two examples, could track when maintenance is needed rather than waiting until it's normally scheduled, researchers said.

AFRL researchers have tested flexible solar cells on a military drone, doubling its endurance using solar power.

They have also tested an antenna that conforms to the outside of an unmanned aerial vehicle, and flexible-material heaters that de-ice the wings of a drone.

"For these unmanned aerial vehicles, icing can be a big problem and typically can't be used in conditions where you expect icing might occur," Leever said.

The research lab has increasingly explored more dual military and commercial uses to bring technology out of the lab and into the marketplace. This month, the agency announced it will spend up to $4.1 million to hire organizations to help it find promising technologies for commercialization.

The Defense Department also awarded a more than $7 million grant to a partnership led by Wright State Applied Research Corp. to find ways to diversity Dayton's economy, particularly the potential to commercialize technology developed in regional labs.

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