Carnegie Mellon University startup Liquid X makes an impression
By John D. Oravecz
Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A Carnegie Mellon University startup aims to revolutionize nanometer-scale circuitry for electronic and medical devices, using metals that can be printed from a common inkjet printer.
Liquid X Printed Metals Inc. has raised undisclosed financing and named Greg Babe as CEO to help commercialize its less expensive metallic ink technology. It will enable manufacturers to print metal traces and films on components, using gold, silver, copper or aluminum.
Babe is a former CEO of Bayer Corp. and Orbital Engineering Inc. in Pittsburgh. He left Orbital last month.
Oakland-based Liquid X's technology is important because there is no other method of making very thin, metal circuits using a common printer and because it offers high conductivity at lower costs than competing technology. Other methods use techniques that produce thicker traces and are more expensive, experts said.
Liquid X's technology, under review by the Patent Office, can produce miniaturized circuits on the same scale as the 32- and 22-nanometer processes used to produce the latest generations of microprocessors. There are 1 million nanometers in a millimeter, and a human hair ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter.
Liquid X was founded in 2010 by Richard McCullough, a former CMU researcher and entrepreneur who is now vice provost for research at Harvard University; Bill Newlin, an attorney, executive and the company's first outside investor; and John A. Belot, a visiting associate professor at CMU and Liquid X's scientific officer.
“The potential for Liquid X is vast,” said Newlin, chairman of Newlin Investment Co. in Sewickley.
The financing will be used to strengthen Liquid X's management team, buy equipment and prepare to enter commercial markets, Newlin said. Others involved include Innovation Works and several unnamed investors, he said.
“It's an ink, just like any other you will see,” said McCullough, 54. “You just put it in an inkjet printer. Once you print it, you have to convert it into the metal lines with heat, as a secondary step.”
The conversion for gold is at less than 100 degrees, silver at less than 200, he said.
Liquid X inks can be used to create circuits in many electronic devices such as membrane switches, cellphones, televisions and solar panels, he said. Solar panels currently use a silver connection between the silicon cells and the device that is receiving the power. Using silver conductive ink, that connection could be printed using much smaller amounts of silver, McCullough said.
A major opportunity lies in biological sensors and sensors in general, he said. In biological sensors that attach to the body or go into the body, all metals except gold, which is inert, react with body fluids. Printing with gold conductive ink would reduce the amount of the precious metal required, lowering costs, he said.
Competing printable metal inks use metal dust or flakes suspended in a solution, said Stan Farnsworth, chief of technology at NovaCentrix Inc., an Austin, Texas, company that makes such inks, along with DuPont and others. NovaCentrix also manufacturers heat and flash lamp tools that process the inks after they've been printed. NovaCentrix's inks suspend metal particles, while DuPont uses silver flakes, which must be heated to 1,000 degrees to convert to metal, he said.
“Liquid X is not using particles,” Farnsworth said. “Their metal content is dissolved in the chemistry of their formulation, like salt or sugar dissolved in water. When it dries, it comes back out. Liquid X can get a water-like viscosity to its inks and very good performance,” Farnsworth said.
McCullough and Newlin worked together before at Plextronics in Harmar, a CMU spin-off that produces another form of conductive inks — based on plastics — that are being used in next-generation organic light emitting diode televisions, lighting and signs.
McCullough was Plextronics' founder and chief scientist and Newlin is its chairman of the board. Plextronics was founded in 2002 with the goal of taking conductive polymer technology that McCullough developed to commercial uses.
For Liquid X, “we raised the amount of capital we deemed necessary to get us through the next year to 18 months of the growth phase,” Newlin said. He said the money will be used “to round off the management team, equipment and production capacity as we engage customers.”
Babe said Liquid X's priority is to identify its first commercial applications and generate volume business.
Liquid X's technology clearly has a cost advantage because it produces thinner trace lines using gold or silver.
Babe, 56, retired as CEO from Bayer in Robinson effective June 30, 2012, after 36 years. “It's a great company, it was a great experience, but that was not how I wanted to end my career.”
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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