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Hack Your Useless Inkjet To Print Electronics Circuits

Homemade circuits are a natural complement to 3-D printers in the renaissance of garage tinkering.

Hack Your Useless Inkjet To Print Electronics Circuits

[Image: Flickr user Daniil Vasiliev]

With the rise of 3-D printers, homebrew hobbyists can now make enclosures for electronics like Ardiunos. But until recently, those hobbyists still couldn’t make the actual computing components—there’s no cheap and easy way to print circuit boards. Unless of course you have an inkjet printer and some time to hack.

New research shows standard inkjet printers can be modified to print functioning circuits. These instant inkjet circuits, as they’re called, could make prototyping circuitry as easy as printing your resume—something you’ll never have to do again if you succeed in making a digital gizmo that people love.

Image via Georgia Institute of Technology

The image above shows a single-sided wiring pattern for an Arduino microcontroller on a transparent sheet of PET film. That’s right: With this tech, you could pump out a microcontroller of your own design. The cost? $300 in equipment to transform your desktop inkjet into a 60-second circuit-printing beast. Slap some double-sided conductive tape between your printed circuit and desired components, and bam! Circuit connection.

Prototyping and education are the biggest benefits of this hack: Lowering the barriers to entry (crucially, price and time) will be useful for experimenting with new designs. Shaving production time down to 60 seconds also streamlines the student learning experience. And in the spirit of education, the results have been written up in an award-winning paper, "Instant Inkjet Circuits: Lab-based Inkjet Printing to Support Rapid Prototyping of UbiComp Devices," presented at 2013 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing conference Zurich, Sept. 8–12, and offered free of charge.

Inkjet circuit printing has been around for at least a decade, but only via equipment that topped $50k, according to Ben Cook, PhD and student at Georgia Tech, which partnered with University of Tokyo and Microsoft Research to bring inkjet circuit printing under the cost of a smartphone.

Image via Georgia Institute of Technology

The key is in the ink: silver nanoparticle ink, to be precise. As previously proposed by a University of Illinois professor, silver liquid ink allows for a much smaller (100 nanometer) nozzle than previous metal-particle-filled inks, and it can bond with more surfaces at lower temperatures (90 degrees C/194 degrees F) that are within desktop machine range. These lower temps allow the silver nanoparticle ink to bond without the need for the material-damaging sintering process, so the ink can be inlaid into many more materials (including PET film and resin-coated paper). Just think about all the circuits you can churn out on scientist-approved glossy photo paper!