What if a touchscreen could bend in any direction?

The development of thin films made from carbon nanobuds could mean your next car will look very different. 

A carbon nanotube is between one and two nanometres thick – like a hair split into a hundred thousand strands. 

In 2003, Professor Esko I. Kauppinen and his research group studied the atomic structure of the carbon nanotubes that they had produced by using a synthesis reactor. To their surprise, they noticed that the electronic microscope images showed small, spherical structures in addition to the nanotubes themselves. 

‘After many years of intensive research, we were able to demonstrate that these spheres were a particular nanocarbon form called fullerene, which was attached to the nanotubes’, Kauppinen remembers. 

This composite material was named nanobud, and it was granted a rare new material patent and presented to the world in the 2007 Nature Nanotechnology journal. It was clear from the very beginning to Kauppinen and his colleagues that their interest was not only in the new material itself but also in its possible industrial applications. 

‘The film made from nanobuds is transparent, conducts electricity in all directions, is flexible and, most significantly, can be stretched into any shape. The metal oxides currently used in touchscreens, in contrast, cease to function after being flexed several times.’ 

In order to develop commercial innovations, Kauppinen founded Canatu Oy together with his research colleagues. The company makes thin films for 3D touchscreens and sensors, which have drawn much interest from the vehicle industry in particular. 

‘If, for example, all the control buttons and switches inside a car would be replaced with touchscreens, the vehicle would become much lighter and aesthetically pleasing. Small bumps or depressions can also be formed on the film’s surface, so it would not be necessary to look at the screen while driving, but rather the right spot can be found by touch. Another advantage of the Canatu film is that it does not reflect light at all. And it is just this kind of electrically conductive and transparent material that is needed for the sensors of the self-driving vehicles of the future.’ 

Large progress has been taken in the research of nanobuds and their practical applications, but Kauppinen stresses that there is plenty of further research and development to be done. 

‘The conductivity of the film is already exceptional, but we are not yet even close to the theoretical maximum. A flexible, transparent conductive film is also just one application of nanobuds – in the future it could also revolutionise information technology by being used as a material for incredibly small and very fast transistors.’

About Canatu

  • Founded in 2004. 
  • Manufactures transparent, electrically conductive, flexible and stretchable nanocarbon films. Commercial manufacturing began in 2015. 
  • The French company Faurecia and the Japanese company Denso, which are the largest manufacturers of vehicle interior technology, invested in Canatu in 2016 and 2017. 
  • In addition to vehicle interiors, flexible touchscreens could also be used in the flexible consumer electronics of the future, wearable devices and home electronics, to name but a few possible applications. 
  • Canatu has attracted around €40 million of private funding as well as significant grants from Business Finland (formerly Tekes) and the European Union. 
  • The company employs around 50 people. The factory is located in Helsinki and the company has offices also in the US, Japan, Korea, China and Germany. Kauppinen is a member of the company board.