The science of making electronics out of plastic has recently taken a huge leap forward with the creation of the first working computer CPU chip – processor – made entirely from plastic. While it may sound like an un-natural combination electricity and plastic can work and the scientific types at the IMEC nanotechnology centre in Leuven, Belgium have produced a simple demonstration circuit. Plastics offer the interesting ability to be printed directly onto a glad wrap like plastic, allowing for cheap computing devices – in the cent per chip or less – that may one day appear in places where the cost and lack of flexibility has always stopped traditional computer chips.
Researchers used 4,000 plastic transistors to build the plastic processor. The device measures roughly two centimeters square and is built on top of flexible plastic foil. “Compared to using silicon, this has the advantage of lower price and that it can be flexible,” says Jan Genoe, lead designer.
For a while technology companies have worked with plastic circuit lines – the wire like lines that join chips together – but something more solid has always been needed to build the chips on. This breakthrough represents the first time the entire processor and surrounding circuits could be built out of plastic on a flexible surface. While the chip built by the scientists was an extremely simple example, equivalent to what was being built 50 years ago with traditional technology, it is a positive step towards the ultimate goal of super cheap, bendy and clear computers.
The applications for this technology are numerous and will effect every part of our lives. The fact the price to produce these chips will be many times cheaper than even the simplest silicon chips means that computing power will make it into everything from plastic containers to clothing. Wrist bands with screens and computing power will be simple. All display technology could be simplified by building the computer chips into a clear transparent layer in the back layer of the screen.
This technology doesn’t mean that silicon will be consigned to making decorative fish or geek jewelery – silicon is after all basically glass – this is not a rival to the current computer chip technology, they will be complimentary. Current silicon – or its latest version – will always be used to make high performance computer chips that we use in computers, their plastic cousins while having some special talents like being bendy will never offer the speed that silicon currently does.
The plastic processor was presented at the ISSCC – International Solid-State Circuits Conference – conference in San Jose, California, last month. Also presented at the conference was a demonstration of plastic RAM – random access memory, the processors working storage space– this is another important part to creating an entire computer from transparent, flexible and cheap plastic. “These efforts are new techniques, so we cannot guarantee that they will be built and work together,” says Zhang the plastic Ram creator. So more work is required in bringing all of the technologies together but at least all of the major parts seem to have fallen into place.
Plastic chips will drive computing power into every corner of our life, this is the second revolution in computing, where even the cheapest of products can have a computer embedded in it. Once all of the critical parts of a computer can be produced with plastic clever people will come up with a million unforeseen uses for this technology, the future is wide open for this plastic with smarts.