When most people grab their cellphone or laptop, few consider what is physically keeping everything together, but a Waterloo nanotechnology researcher does.

Boxin ZhaoBoxin Zhao, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, is developing a way to keep our electronics together without using metal solder that can be both toxic and damage small electronic boards inside.

“Everything we have now is so small and light – small machines and devices – but they must perform maximal functions,”says Zhao, who is also a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.

Zhao is leading a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Strategic Project, in collaboration with engineering Professor Norman Zhou and Dean of Engineering Pearl Sullivan.  The team wants to combine soft, sticky polymer with nanotechnology to address some of the challenges of manufacturing. His team is working to develop a strong, robust polymer that sticks to nearly any surface. But unlike conventional glues and plastics, which typically insulate, the material actually conducts and transfers electrical current.

To create this effect, his team pumps an epoxy full of nanofillers – nanowires and nanotubes – in addition to silver flakes. The conductive polymer is light, flexible and doesn’t require high heat.

Nano-adhesive and electronic paper

Because metallic solder must be heated to make it malleable enough to work with, there's a risk of damage to the ever-smaller and more delicate electronic boards. The material is also toxic, particularly if it contains lead.

The polymer adhesive would be a boon for electronic paper technology in the future. E-paper, a computerized display technology that mimics the look and feel of a piece of ordinary laminated paper, is light-weight, flexible and can even be curled up. Hard, rigid conventional solder simply doesn’t work with the technology.

“But if you use polymers, the softness allows us to bend or fold the electronic paper,” he says.

Zhao says the material could have a huge impact on manufacturing in all forms, from building the smallest medical devices to the largest aircraft.

Although the conductive polymer still has some way to go before it’s market-ready, Zhao and his team of colleagues and students are working with industry partners to find ways to commercialize it.

“Creating nano-composite material is quite challenging, but there’s a good future for it,” says Zhao.