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Photo of Joseph Andrews
February 25, 2020

Focus on new faculty: Joseph Andrews, advancing printed electronics for practical applications

Written By: Adam Malecek


When Joseph Andrews gets an idea for a new printed electronic device while sipping his morning coffee, he can typically create a full prototype by the afternoon.

“One of the benefits of printed electronics is an extremely low barrier to doing experiments,” he says. “This technology allows us to fabricate flexible and highly customizable electronics on demand.”

Andrews, who joined the mechanical engineering department as an assistant professor in fall 2019, works to design and create new printed electronic devices for sensing applications. His areas of interest range from developing biosensors for detecting disease to sensors that can work in harsh environments like near nuclear reactors to monitor temperature and radiation levels.

His research involves developing new inks to increase the performance and viability of printed electronics. He also seeks to develop new ways to control and automate the printing process, removing the need for a person to monitor it and manually adjust parameters to correct errors.

In his lab, Andrews uses inkjet and aerosol jet printers loaded with various electronic inks to print circuits on flexible substrates.

“The inkjet printer works in much the same way as a typical office printer, but it’s more sophisticated, allowing us to print with harsh chemicals and achieve a higher resolution,” he says.

Using these techniques, Andrews can print conductors, semiconductors and insulators, which are the three main types of electronic materials needed to make complicated devices such as thin-film transistors or sensors. Andrews earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina in 2015 and his PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Duke University in 2019. His doctorate research focused on investigating nanomaterial inks for printed electronic systems and sensors.

“People have been trying to figure out how to use nanomaterials for useful applications, and I think dispersing them in liquids to create electronic inks is definitely a viable pathway and provides a lot of value,” he says.

With his background in electrical engineering, Andrews brings new tools and areas of expertise to the mechanical engineering department’s mechanics and controls research area, which will help enhance the educational opportunities for students. He holds a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and is an affiliate of the college’s Grainger Institute for Engineering.

He says the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration both in the college and across the UW-Madison campus was one reason he was drawn to the university.

“At UW-Madison, the walls between departments and colleges are really low for collaboration,” he says. “Innovations with the biggest impact are increasingly interdisciplinary, so the ability to easily collaborate across disciplines and work with top experts outside my field is really attractive.”

Andrews is already collaborating on an interdisciplinary project that holds promise for helping to address the global health challenge of HIV. He has partnered with Dr. Dawd Siraj, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, to work on developing an inexpensive portable diagnostic assay that can make HIV testing, specifically for newborns, more accessible and efficient in remote areas.

Their concept involves printing both the electronics and bio-recognition elements together to create an electronic device that can be integrated with a cartridge. Clinicians would add a sample of the patient’s blood and plug the cartridge into a cellphone, which would perform the diagnostic measurements and provide results—all without the need for complicated laboratory tests.

“This is one of the projects I’m most excited about and I think has a huge potential for impact,” he says. “My lab is trying to figure out applications where using printed electronics provides value and enhances performance beyond just being novel, and I think this type of biosensor is a good use of the technology.”

Andrews is passionate about teaching, and he says the College of Engineering’s emphasis on providing state-of-the-art undergraduate education also attracted him. He is teaching ECE 376, Electrical and Electronic Circuits, and he enjoys the course’s flipped format, which allows him to interact more with the students.

“I really value undergraduate teaching, and I find it to be very personally fulfilling,” he says.