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
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.