Wallpaper became popular during the Renaissance among an emerging elite who desired decoration without the expense of wall tapestries. By the early 20th century, it had become one of the most coveted household products in the West. Today, many architects look down on what they perceive to be a superficial means of ornamentation. However, technology has given it unexpected functionality.
A novel manufacturing technique developed by doctoral student Gul Amin at Linköping University, Sweden, for example, fabricates white LEDs directly on paper. The chemical process “grows” LEDs from zinc oxide and a conducting polymer, polydiethylflourene (PFO). Before this active material layer is deposited, the paper is first coated with cyclotene, a thin, water-repellent coating. Magnus Willander, the professor who is overseeing the research, hails this development as the first time anyone has built “electronic and photonic inorganic semiconducting components directly on paper using chemical methods.”
OLEDs also hold promise for self-illuminating paper. U.K.-based Lomox recently announced its light-emitting wallpaper, which it claims could reduce annual global CO2 emissions by more than 2.5 million tonnes by 2020. Lomox also says that its OLED-based flexible screen panels will reduce energy consumption due to electric lighting by 60 percent.
Light isn’t the only thing wallpaper can emit. Scientists at the Institute for Print and Media Technology of the Chemnitz University of Technology (pmTUC) in Germany have recently printed speakers on paper. Sound quality and levels are good, says senior researcher Georg Schmidt. But the bass “is a bit weak.”
Like a conventional speaker, the printed paper connects to an amplifier to intensify the audio signal. Because mass-production is relatively inexpensive, scaling production of the printable speakers is feasible. PmTUC head Arved Hübler says, “As printing allows for different formats and forms, there is the possibility to influence the generated sound waves.”
Wallpaper can even help save lives. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have developed an earthquake-resistant wallpaper to buy time for occupants to exit buildings. The intelligent composite seismic wallpaper is a textile comprising glass fibers embedded in different orientations within a layer of mortar.
The scientists produced the textile according to the framework of the POLYTECT (Polyfunctional Technical Textiles against Natural Hazards) EU project to reinforce the masonry walls of buildings in seismically active regions. The reinforcing system can also cover building cracks caused by settling.
By transforming appliqué into high-performing surfaces, these technologies bring surprising and significant capabilities to an otherwise unessential building material. Moreover, these research endeavors demonstrate that functionality can be imparted to products of minimal physical materiality.