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"A New Type of Semiconductor"

Cambridge University researchers, along with a private firm called Plastic Logic, are in the process of developing a new breed of microprocessor that may open the door for chips that can be produced for inexpensive or even disposable devices. The economical chips, which are being developed using plastic, could be used in a wide assortment of electronic devices.

At this time, the processors are not being evaluated as a means to replace the semiconductors that are currently on the market, which are based on silicon, as they may not hold up under the high temperatures that are produced from devices requiring high processing speeds. That being said, the technology has a variety of projected uses where speed may not be the number one requirement. The technology could ultimately lead to new smart devices that are easy and inexpensive to design and manufacture. Of these, smart appliances and flat-panel computer displays are probably at the top of the list.

Flat-Panel displays, at this time very expensive to manufacture and purchase, use a Thin-Film Transistor (TFT) for presenting information. It is this TFT display that could be made from the plastic transistors, resulting in much lower costs. The plastic microchips could also be used to add computing technology to home entertainment appliances, disposable cameras or even refrigerators, while keeping the respective costs associated with the advancements of the devices to a minimum.

A silicon-based microprocessor is produce using a very thorough processes that require manufacturing facilities that are extremely costly to build. The high overheads of the plants that produce the chips coupled with a process that is increasingly complicated and costly result in relatively high costs for end users. While costs go down as the processes are perfected, it takes a good deal of time before this occurs. On the other hand, plastic microprocessor plants may be as low as one hundred times cheaper to construct. Additionally, the process itself will be much easier and less demanding, both in terms of cost and operations.

The method of production, printing plastic to a polymer substrate, has already been patented, and is based on work from professors at Cambridge University with some of the funding for the project provided by household names such as Dow Chemical. Development of flexible and inexpensive microchips may be the first step in creating disposable electronic devices. It's possible that the rapidly evolving technology could be demonstrated as soon as next year, and although the technology is in its infancy, several potential markets, ranging from flat-panel computer displays to disposable cameras, are anticipating the ability to provide low cost devices as a result of the research.

  - by Clayton Crooks

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