Portland startup Magwire Inc. is a solutions-based nanotechnology company aiming to improve flexible displays in smartphones and other touch interface devices.
In 2019, consumers purchased nearly 1.52 billion smartphones worldwide--a staggering increase in sales since the devices appeared on the market in 2007, selling over 122 million units. In the last decade, smartphone manufacturers have sought to increase the size of displays through various engineering and design solutions, including the development of foldable phones.
Leveraging technology developed at Portland State University by Professor Shankar Rananavare and graduate student Srikar Darmakkolla, Magwire addresses issues posed by the materials used in current state-of-the-art flexible transparent conductive films deployed in smartphones and other devices.
To achieve the level of transparency and conductivity consumers expect in their devices, smartphone manufacturers use a layer of indium tin oxide (ITO). This material, however, is brittle, and thus, is not well-suited for flexible displays. An alternative to ITO, silver nanowires, offers a possible solution but introduces other problems, such as limited display transparency, which negatively impacts battery life and the susceptibility of silver to corrosion (tarnishing). In addition to these materials, manufacturers have experimented with graphene, a form of carbon, although graphene does not provide ITO's conductivity or transparency.
Magwire's solution to the issues posed by the current state-of-the-art materials technology is magnetic, nickel-coated copper nanowires. Drawing on expertise in display technology, nanoscience, and a proven record of innovation in sensor technology and optical lithography, Rananavare and Dramakkolla developed methods to produce copper nanowires to craft transparent conductive films with the potential to meet the characteristic requirements of conductivity, transparency, and flexibility needed for the next generation of touch displays.
"What we do in the lab is focus on solving problems," Rananavare said. "The problem we wanted to address with this technology was: most conductive materials are not transparent. That creates issues with touch displays.”
Rananavare’s and Darmakkolla’s idea was to synthesize nickel-coated copper nanowire and then use magnets to align the wires.
“This process creates a mesh or net that can be placed on a flexible surface. End-to-end, ordered magnetic nanowires allow a signal or current to move from point A to point B along the shortest path when compared to the current approach based on the random arrangement of silver nanowires,” Rananavare said. “This way, we can achieve the transparency and conductivity needed to use copper in a display by lowering the surface concentrations of nanowires."
According to Sam (Samantha) Phenix, CEO and Founder of Magwire, the technology is patent-protected in the US. The company has received initial early-stage funding from the University Venture Development Fund Portland State University and a matching grant from the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI). It has also been invited by the National Science Foundation to apply for Phase I SBIR funding. And while Srikar Darmakkolla has since graduated and moved on to a professional career outside academia, the research continues; Professor Shankar recently enlisted graduate student Ben Landers-Sherer to join the Magwire team, supporting their plans to move forward with further research and development.
As manufacturers of smartphones press ahead with flexible devices, overcoming the technical challenges posed by this new technology will be essential. Magwire’s novel products will be there to meet these challenges in a market expected to move more than 1.5 billion units in 2021 alone.