Thin and flexible PCBs based on parylene

Monday, 29 November, 2021

Thin and flexible PCBs based on parylene

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nano Systems ENAS have successfully developed flexible printed circuit boards (PCBs), based on the polymer known as parylene, with an overall thickness of less than 20 µm and several metallisation layers. The flexible PCB was showcased at two recent trade shows: COMPAMED from 15–18 November and SEMICON Europa from 16–19 November.

For the realisation of advanced smart applications such as smart medical wearables, smart adhesive tapes or structural health monitoring of lightweight structures by integrated sensors, flexible electronics and in particular flexible PCBs are a key enabler. For the given applications, thin PCBs are preferred in comparison to thicker designs, since lower total thicknesses come along with better wearing comfort, eg, considering medical wearables for monitoring vital parameters or smart plasters. Similarly, thinner flexible sensors for structural monitoring can be better integrated in lightweight structures than thicker ones.

For existing technologies for flexible PCBs, the total thicknesses can easily cumulate up to several 100 µm, particularly if they include several metallisation layers. This limits their flexibility and integratability. Scientists at Fraunhofer ENAS have now succeeded in producing an ultrathin and flexible printed circuit board with several metallisation layers.

The key here was the use of parylene, which is deposited at room temperature without any intrinsic stresses. It provides good mechanical stability, even for low-layer thicknesses, while featuring a low Young’s modulus and hence high bendability, even at low temperatures. At the same time, it provides comparably good thermal stability. Under these conditions, it was possible to extremely reduce the overall thickness of the parylene-based PCB while at the same time realising a high degree of flexibility.

In addition, the polymer offers other advantageous properties that are crucial for subsequent use in very different applications. These include ISO 10993 certified biocompatibility and biostability, chemical inertness and thus compatibility with common microtechnologies, optical transparency, electrical isolation and low permeability.

Photo (a) and microscopic image (b) of an ultrathin parylene-based printed circuit board with two metallisation layers of gold. Image ©Fraunhofer ENAS.

Using parylene to realise advanced flexible PCBs, the polymer acts as a flexible substrate, as a dielectric between the different metallic redistribution layers and as an encapsulation layer. The PCBs are fabricated using established microtechnologies, allowing a variety of metallisation technologies such as sputtering or additive manufacturing-based technologies and different metals to be used for the fabrication of the metallic interconnect layers. Doing so, dimensions as low as 10 µm can be realised. For the realisation of vertical interconnects between the metallic layers, the intermediate parylene dielectric with a thickness of only a few micrometres is patterned, whereas different methods can be applied to fill the resulting via again. Using these technologies, total thicknesses of less than 20 µm can be achieved for parylene-based flexible PCBs — even if they contain several metallisation layers.

This new generation of ultrathin and highly flexible PCB based on parylene can thus provide an advanced packaging platform for enabling new smart applications in the field of flexible electronics. Due to the biocompatibility of parylene, the fabrication of a fully biocompatible PCB is possible, when choosing biocompatible metals such as gold or titanium.

Top image credit: ©DollarPhotoClub/Sergey Nivens

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