Phone tree: Critical communications component made on a flexible wooden film

In the not-too-distant future, flexible electronics will open the door to new products like foldable phones, rollable tablets, and paper-thin displays, beyond widely developed wearable sensors that monitor health data. Developing these new bendy products, however, means using novel materials like new plastics and thin films to replace the rigid circuit boards and bulky electronic components that currently occupy the interiors of cell phones and other gadgets.

But new research by a University of Wisconsin-Madison engineer leverages a surprising and inexpensive substance—wood—to make the flexible microwave circuits that power modern communications.

In a new paper in the June 19, 2020, issue of the journal Nature Communications, Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, explains how he and his collaborators constructed a functional microwave amplifier circuit on a substrate of cellulose nanofibril paper, a wood product.

For more than a decade, Ma has been the world’s leader in creating microwave flexible electronics, including thin-film transistors and other components. Microwave components, which are used in wireless communication, have proved difficult to produce in a flexible form and are typically constructed on integrated semiconductor chips or printed on circuit boards. Flexible versions, however, could have widespread applications in wearable devices, drones and as part of large-area microwave arrays used in 5G and advanced communication systems.

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