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BW Businessworld

New Twists

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About a month ago, researchers at Belgian firm Imec presented a new kind of micro-processor at the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) at San Jose in California. Although it was a primitive product by modern standards, it generated some excitement in electronics engineers. The reason: it was made of plastic instead of silicon.

For several decades, the world of electronics was driven by continuous improvements in silicon chips. These improvements will continue for some time, but silicon is simply not good enough for many applications because it is expensive and rigid. There is a minimum cost, about $1-2, below which you cannot produce a silicon chip. And you cannot bend silicon to fit the geometry of many products. Plastic electronics can solve both problems, thus opening up worlds we have only imagined so far.

The Imec processor was the first to be made of plastic. The institution had been working on the device for a while, and had frequently announced milestones earlier. The current one, announced at ISSCC, consists of 4,000 plastic transistors pieced together and put on top of a flexible plastic foil. Together, the transistors take up an area of 4 sq. cm. It can handle only simple programs: those that run at 8 bits. The processor runs at about 6 hertz.

The computer industry passed this phase decades ago. The first PC chip that Intel launched in 1972 had 3,500 transistors, was eight bit and could run at half a million hertz (500 khz). Even your phone processor runs at 1 ghz now and PC chips can process data at a maximum of  128 bits at a time. So the plastic chip is a snail, but even snails have their uses in many ways. The processor is part of an ongoing revolution in organic electronics. Although organic compounds that could carry current were discovered in the 19th century, the overwhelming success of silicon slowed down the development of organic electronics. It was only in the 1990s that scientists began to develop techniques for making plastic electronics substrates. The first set of commercial products will hit markets soon.

The Imec processor is some way from commercial development. Plastic processors cannot be built with the precision of silicon processors: silicon has a perfect crystalline arrangement whereas organic molecules form a jumble. Yet, you can develop algorithms that could eliminate this imprecision to an acceptable level. The Imec team gives two examples: a processor that could give you warning of gas leaks or another one that could tell you the amount of calories you consumed from a packet of cookies.

Organic processors would be used in situations where they need to be cheap or flexible. Organic electronics, however, has a much wider scope than computing. Plastic RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags are now coming into the market. Organic electronics is the basis for the emerging technology that uses electrochromism, a property of materials that change colour and opacity when a charge is applied (this is leading the development of smart glass for buildings and automobiles).

Plastic Logic, one of the most high-profile startups in organic electronics, is developing a plastic e-reader. Its first generation product, called Que, was shelved a year ago due to change in market conditions, as a series of e-readers were launched. Coming up is its second generation plastic e-reader. In the near future, plastic paper could let you roll up your e-readers the way you do a newspaper. That will be quite a revolution.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-04-2011)