Piezotech’s electroactive polymers: a new area of electronics!
Is there a market for electroactive materials?
Fabrice Domingues Dos Santos – Definitely! Electroactive materials, particularly piezoelectric ceramic materials, are all around us. Known since the late 19th century, they are used in watches and lighters, cars, printers (injectors), smartphones (sensors, accelerometers), hospital equipment such as ultrasound scanners, and ship navigation systems (sonars, etc.).
What makes electroactive polymers particularly useful?
F. D. D. S. – Piezoelectric ceramics are hard, sometimes toxic, materials that take a lot of energy to produce, and can only be used for small applications. Printable electroactive polymers can be used to make thin, flexible, lightweight objects with large surface areas, which can be recycled using environmentally friendly methods. Arkema supplies them to its clients in the form of powders, inks and thin films, which they use to make their products.
Electroactive polymers are fine, lightweight and flexible, and can be integrated using simple procedures. They cost very little in terms of energy and offer infinite opportunities.
What do these products look like?
F. D. D. S. – They are electronic devices such as sensors, actuators and transistors that turn surfaces, objects and buildings into smart systems. For example, Arkema sells electroactive polymers to Novasentis, which uses them to make its actuators. These electronic parts communicate information to the user via touch. Next, a video game manufacturer buys these actuators from Kemet-Novasentis to make its video game joysticks. This improves the sensory realism in the game for the player.
Can you give other examples of mass market applications?
F. D. D. S. – The only limit is our imagination. We have already had successes in smartphones, musical instruments and defense. In the automotive industry, for example, we’re working on integrating sensors and actuators into the surfaces of dashboards. In homes, we are developing smart flooring and beds that can detect things such as movement, heart rate or a person falling. Then there are smart fabrics that measure and transmit biomedical information about the wearer. Also in the health sector, we have catheters and surgical guides where we can adjust their direction to the nearest tenth of a millimeter, as well as health tracking bracelets, etc. Electroactive polymers will also be found in virtual reality applications that are set to be developed in many fields.
What is innovative about these examples? Did they not exist already?
F. D. D. S. – By playing around with their chemical composition, we can offer materials with a wide and unique range of properties, from extreme sensitivity to deformation, vibrations and heat to the creation of sensations, energy and even cooling. One of the major innovations is that they generate their own energy from vibrations or ambient heat. Take the bracelet I referred to, which gets its energy simply from the body’s movement; or wireless, battery-free sensors integrated into floors, planes and wind turbines. These polymers bring a great deal of subtlety to applications such as haptic actuators in smart gloves, which can give the user the illusion of touching stone or velvet. This represents major progress compared with classic actuators, which vibrate like crazy.
Our partnerships with manufacturers, academic institutions and associations in our sector are essential to the emergence of the organic and printed electronics industry."
What role does Arkema play in this market?
F. D. D. S. – Arkema is a driving force: As a designer and supplier of value-added polymer materials, we are at the base of the innovation creation chain in this market. Given the high number of sectors that demand organic and printed electronics – telephony, automotive, printing, medicine, home automation – the range of applications in which our products can be found is very wide. These are very promising markets, such as smart objects, printed sensors and wearables, estimated at nearly €52 billion by 2025.
What means has Arkema put in place internally to develop these activities?
F. D. D. S. – Arkema already stands out thanks to its unique expertise in developing electroactive fluoropolymers, from design to fabrication. In 2010, we acquired the startup Piezotech, which specializes in developing sensors and electroactive materials, and integrated it into our research incubator for advanced materials. It really boosted this agile structure, supported by a global group, through our sales networks, research centers and partnerships.
Talking of partnerships, who has Arkema collaborated with to develop this market?
F. D. D. S. – Before naming them, I should say one thing: They are essential! Printed and organic electronics is an emerging sector. This stage between invention and innovation, when the product becomes commercially viable, is particularly delicate. To be successful at this research and development stage, the ecosystem of partnerships must be structured, targeted and solid, to ensure the market succeeds. This ecosystem brings together all parties in the innovation chain: manufacturers, the academic world, research institutes, professional associations and startups.
How would you sum it up?
F. D. D. S. – It is fascinating to be part of this adventure in which enthusiasm, creativity and partnership are key. Arkema is leading the way alongside manufacturers and academic research institutes, which are combining their efforts to develop more intelligent, more responsible materials.
Some key figures
> €20 billion
Global revenues from piezoelectric ceramic materials in 2020.
> €1,331 billion by 2025(1)
Estimated global revenue for the smart object market.
(1) Sullivan 2017
> €8 billion by 2025(2)
Estimated global revenue for printed sensors.
(2) Chansin, IDTECHEX 2015
> €52 billion by 2025
Estimated global revenue for the wearables market.