Photo by: Darrel Hoemann
Brett Walker seemingly can't stop creating stuff.
The 27-year-old doctoral student at the University of Illinois started a gun-parts business in high school.
He turned his attention to fuels in college, converting waste grease into biodiesel and "slop oil" into pipeline-grade oil.
Now, completing his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering, he's launching a business around reactive silver inks -- used in printed electronics.
"I'm a tinkerer," Walker said. "I can't sit still. I like creating new things and exploring problems I want to explore."
Last year, his work to develop a cheaper, easier-to-make ink than those already on the market earned him runner-up honors in the National Collegiate Inventors Competition -- and a $12,500 award.
Walker started his newest company -- Electroninks Inc. -- on Jan. 2. The name sounds a lot like "electronics," and that's no accident, since the ink is used in printed electronics.
His co-founder in the venture, Jennifer Lewis, is a former UI materials science professor who recently joined Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The reactive silver ink is superior in several respects to colloidal inks conventionally used for printed electronics, Walker said.
Those particle-based inks are "relatively expensive and difficult to make," he said. Plus, they require high annealing temperatures that can distort plastic printing surfaces, he added.
Walker said the reactive silver ink is "simple to make," and small batches of it cost about $2.50 per gram, compared with prices of $10 to $15 a gram for small quantities of colloidal inks.
Walker said he has already approached several large customers in the biomedical and electronic circuitry fields about using the ink.
The biggest market for the ink, he said, is thought to be the printed electronics market, which uses about $1.5 billion in materials a year.
But the biomedical industry can also use the ink in producing electrodes for pacemakers and diagnostic glucose sensors.
Plus, the ink can be used in printing bar code labels and producing high-end decorative signs.
The UI's Office of Technology Management has international and U.S. patents pending on the invention, Walker said.
Lewis, the co-founder of Electroninks, said she knows of only one other supplier of particle-free silver inks, and that's South Korea's InkTek.
She credited Walker as the lead in developing the ink.
"Much of these advances come out of his ingenuity and hard work," she said, adding that Walker is working with 10 to 20 companies in developing inks for their applications.