Copper nanowires may be coming to a little screen near you. These new nano-structures have the potential to drive down the costs of displaying information on cell phones, e-readers and I Pads, and they could also help engineers build foldable electronics and improved solar cells, according to new research.

Duke chemist Ben Wiley and his graduate student have developed a technique to organize copper atoms in water to form long, thin, non-clumped nanowires. The nano-wires are then transformed into transparent, conductive films and coated onto glass or plastic.

The new research shows that the copper nanowire films have the same properties as those currently used in electronic devices and solar cells, but are less expensive to manufacture.

The films that currently connect pixels in electronic screens are made of indium tin oxide, or ITO. It is highly transparent, which transmits the information well. But the ITO film must be deposited from a vapor in a process that is a thousand times slower than newspaper printing, and, once the ITO is in the device, it cracks easily. Indium is also an expensive rare earth element.

Copper, on the other hand, is a thousand times more abundant than indium or silver, and about 100 times less expensive.

With continuing development, copper nanowires could be in screens and solar cells in the next few years, which could lead to lighter and more reliable displays and also to making solar energy more competitive with fossil fuels.