Scientists from ETH Zurich have developed a 3D printing process that makes it possible to create transparent electrodes to make touchscreens far more responsive than they are currently.

In order to make any glass touchscreen responsive, such as those used on smartphones and tablets, transparent electrodes need to be applied to the glass so the device or machine can detect exactly where a finger has touched it.

The researchers from ETH Zurich used 3D printing techniques to create a special type of electrohydrodynamic ink-jet printing whereby tiny drops of gold are printed out to form ultra-fine gold walls that gradually build up to form a whole grid of nanowalls.

These nanowalls create the transparent electrode and they are so thin that they can barely be seen by the naked eye and are far more transparent and conductive than the touchscreen electrodes made today out of indium tin oxide.

The researchers say the more transparent the electrodes, the better the screen quality, and the more conductive they are, the more quickly the touchscreen will pick up finger movements.

ETC Zurich says its 3D printing method is special because it enables tiny structures to be printed, since the droplets that come out of the glass capillary are about 10 times smaller than the aperture itself.

In order to make their electrodes more conductive, the researchers opted for gold and silver, which conduct electricity much better, but the shortfall is these metals are not transparent, so the scientists had to look at using much thinner amounts of the metals to construct a grid with walls that were only 80 to 500 nanometres in thickness.

To build the grid from such tiny metal walls, the researchers used a 3D printing process called Nanodrip that they invented in 2013. The process involves using inks made from metal nanoparticles in a solvent. An electrical field draws out super tiny droplets of metallic ink out of a glass capillary, which functions as the print head, and on the printbed, the solvent evaporates quickly so tiny walls of metal are built up drop by drop.