NASA’s future exploration missions focus on the manned exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, which will rely heavily on the development of a reliable communications infrastructure from planetary surface-to-surface, surface-to-orbit, and back to Earth. Flexible antennas are highly desired in many scenarios.

Active phased array antennas (active PAAs) with distributed control and processing electronics at the surface of an antenna aperture offer numerous advantages for radar communications. Large-area active PAAs on flexible substrates are of particular interest in NASA’s space radars due to their efficient inflatable package that can be rolled up during transportation and deployed in space. Such an inflatable package significantly reduces stowage volume and mass. Because of these performance and packaging advantages, large-area inflatable active PAAs are highly desired in NASA’s surface-to-orbit and surface-to-relay communications.

To address the issues of flexible electronics, a room-temperature printing process of active phased-array antennas on a flexible Kapton substrate was developed. Field effect transistors (FETs) based on carbon nanotubes (CNTs), with many unique physical properties, were successfully proved feasible for the PAA system.

This innovation is a new type of fully inkjet-printable, two-dimensional, highfrequency PAA on a flexible substrate at room temperature. The designed electronic circuit components, such as the FET switches in the phase shifter, metal interconnection lines, microstrip transmission lines, etc., are all printed using a special inkjet printer. Using the developed technology, entire 1×4, 2×2, and 4×4 PAA systems were developed, packaged, and demonstrated at 5.3 GHz.

Several key solutions are addressed in this work to solve the fabrication issues. The source/drain contact is developed using droplets of silver ink printed on the source/drain areas prior to applying CNT thin-film. The wet silver ink droplets allow the silver to “wet” the CNT thin-film area and enable good contact with the source and drain contact after annealing. A passivation layer to protect the device channel is developed by bonding a thin Kapton film on top of the device channel. This film is also used as the media for transferring the aligned CNT thin-film on the device substrate.

A simple and cost-effective technique to form multilayer metal interconnections on flexible substrate is developed and demonstrated. Contact vias are formed on the second substrate prior to bonding on the first substrate. Inkjet printing is used to fill the silver ink into the via structure. The printed silver ink penetrates through the vias to contact with the contact pads on the bottom layer. It is then annealed to form a good connection. One-dimensional and two-dimensional PAAs were fabricated and characterized. In these circuits, multilayer metal interconnects were used to make a complete PAA system.

This work was done by Harish Subbaraman of Omega Optics, Inc., Ray T. Chen of the University of Texas at Austin, Xuejun Lu of University of Massachusetts – Lowell, and Maggie Yihong Chen of Texas State University for Glenn Research Center.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to

NASA Glenn Research Center
Innovative Partnerships Office
Attn: Steven Fedor
Mail Stop 4–8
21000 Brookpark Road
Ohio 44135.