I mentioned recently our work at Envision on the need to be able to rapidly distinguish between various strains of pathogens and how nanotechnology plays a part, but printable electronics plays a greater role than simply producing the detectors.
The beauty of being able to print devices is that costs become almost insignificant, so the critical semiconductor industry metric of yield, i.e. how many of the devices coming off the line are actually working, becomes insignificant. A wafer of microprocessors containing 800 chips retailing for $50 each is worth $40,000, and given the volume of processor manufactured, the effect of a a 2.5% improvement in yield of $1000/wafer soon stacks up. In contrast, printable electronics can produce devices for fractions of a cent (although nothing as complex as a microprocessor) and if these are retailing for a dollar the greater than 90% gross margins means that its not worth tweaking the system to get an improvement of a few percent in yield.
Talking to semiconductor industry people about plastic electronics often reaches an impasse with repeated demands to know what the expected yield of the process would be, and industry players often just not understanding the concept of yield not being significant when it is a measure that can make or lose millions of dollars a day for silicon based semiconductors.
But when we are talking about detecting swine flu (or Influenza (A) H1N1 as it has been re branded) one of the key issues is getting enough tests into the hands of the people who need them, and quickly. Changing a semiconductor process is costly and time consuming, because of the need to maintain high yields, whereas with the printed electronics solution, or at least the one we have, the device remains exactly the same whatever you are trying to detect, and it is only the antigen that needs to be changed whether we are looking for flu strains, bacteria or anything else.
Apart from the cost, which is always high on the agenda in any business, it is the flexibility of the approach which fascinates me. Whichever influenza strain we are looking for, only a small change in the antigen used needs to be made to produce a new detector. In fact, with the technology in its current state, a number of different antigens can be placed on the same chip, allowing positive identification of any one of a number of strains. So creating a new test, or opening up a new market only requires a minor tweak, rather than re engineering an entire process and losing sleep over small changes in yield.