Nano Printing Goes Large

A rolling nanoimprint lithography stamp could be used to print components for displays and solar cells.

A printing technique that could stamp out features just tens of nanometers across at industrial scale is finally moving out of the lab. The new roll-to-roll nanoimprint lithography system could be used to cheaply and efficiently churn out nano-patterned optical films to improve the performance of displays and solar cells.

Nanoimprint lithography uses mechanical force to press out a nanoscale pattern and can make much smaller features than optical lithography, which is reaching its physical limits. The technique was developed as a tool for miniaturizing integrated circuits, and a handful of companies, including Molecular Imprints of Austin, TX, are still developing it for this application.

So far, however, it’s been difficult to scale up nanoimprint lithography reliably. To achieve the resolution needed to print transistors, for example, it’s necessary to use a flat stamp that’s a few centimeters square and must be repeatedly moved over a surface. This isn’t practical when printing large-area films for many other applications. “Displays and solar cells require printing over a much larger area and then cutting it up into sheets,” says Jay Guo, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. “You have to do it in a continuous fashion.”

To solve this problem, Guo developed a stamp that can be used for roll-to-roll nanoimprinting over large areas. His setup uses a polymer mold wrapped around a rolling cylinder to press a pattern into a material called a resist that sits on top of either a rigid glass backing or a polymer one. To make the finished component, the pattern is then fixed by a flash of ultraviolet light. The process, described in the journal ACS Nano,can be done continuously at a rate of a meter per minute, and Guo says he’s used it to print features as small as 50 nanometers over an area six inches wide. That resolution isn’t good enough to make integrated circuits, but it is adequate for printing optical devices such as light concentrators and gratings.

This isn’t the first time that roll-to-roll printing has been explored for nanoimprint lithography. But Yong Chen, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the Michigan group “has made this process more reliable with lower defect density.”