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UA researcher hoping grant money leads to leaps in organic semiconductor research

Organic semiconductors increasingly are used to manufacture ultrathin, ultra-high-definition and flexible displays for TVs, mobile phones and other products. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Puramyun31)

PHOENIX — Imagine being able to take your TV, roll it up and store it or paint solar cells on your roof, or wear gym clothes can monitor your health. With organic electronics, those possibilities are becoming realities.

Erin Ratcliff is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s department of Materials Science and Engineering. Ratcliff and her team was recently awarded $590,000 by the National Science Foundation to study organic semiconductors that could allow for a wide range of inventions.

“Conventional semiconductors are made out of what we call inorganic materials and so they’re assembled from atoms directly off the periodic table — silicon, for example,” she explained.

In contrast, organic semiconductors are made out of molecules instead of singular atoms.

“So what that means is that we can create electronic materials and electronic devices out of conductive plastics.”

Simply put, organic semiconductors can be crafted in a lab, are eco-friendly, are easier to make, cheaper to produce and could result in some new inventions.

“We can make flexible electronics,” she said. “You can think of these TVs that you’ve maybe seen that you can roll them up in a tube and put them in your backpack and take it with you and then open it back up.”

Organic semiconductors are already being used in various flat-screen televisions and cell phones. Ratcliff said, if you’ve purchased an OLED TV, you have organic semiconductors. Some Samsung Galaxy phones also have them.

But what about those solar paints or smart clothes? Before more advances can be made a better understanding of the lifespan of organic semiconductors needs to be studied. That’s where Ratcliff and her research team come in.

“We are looking at a fundamental challenge in that we want to use these organic molecules to do all sorts of new and amazing things,” she said. “So we’re looking at it from a chemical perspective but also from the functionality of our materials perspective. How are these materials breaking down? How are they coming apart? How do they stop working the way that we want them to?

“If we can answer these questions we can go back, we can design even more efficient materials to do even more amazing things.”

Right now, if the organic materials are contained inside of something like they are in TVs and phones, they can last years.

“But if you put these organic materials just out in air where they’re exposed to light, they get rained on and so forth then they don’t last nearly as long. We’re talking maybe hours.”

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