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Sunday, February 13, 2022

Plastic Semiconductors

The challenge of plastics as brains for computation.

Plastic Chips Bend Computing

By Samuel Greengard, Commissioned by CACM Staff, February 10, 2022

Semiconductors have radically changed the world. Today, they serve as the brains for computers, smartphones, home electronics, and a growing array of connected devices. Yet, there's a big problem: it is difficult (often impossible) to use silicon in harsh environments, where it may be exposed to water, dirt, and temperature extremes.

In addition, conventional silicon fabrication processes are expensive, and they require substantial resources. Explains John Biggs, Distinguished Engineer at U.K.-based semiconductor and software design firm Arm, "Silicon has undergone an unbelievable transformation over the last few decades. However, silicon-based electronics can face challenges in certain applications and situations. There's a need for more versatile and inexpensive microchips."

The answer may lie in plastic semiconductors.

After more than two decades of research into flexible electronics, the concept is finally taking hold. Last year, the idea of using plastic chips took a leap forward when Arm and Cambridge, U.K.-based PragmatIC Semiconductor announced they had jointly developed a plastic chip that could eventually be used in a wide variety of situations.

"What's exciting about PragmatIC's technology is that it creates a way to put electronics in and on products that wouldn't normally be considered electronic," says Catherine Ramsdale, senior vice president of Technology at PragmatIC Semiconductor. Adds Biggs: "Very cheap and flexible processors may lead to the Internet of Everything.

Beyond Silicon

The idea of producing flexible semiconductors dates back more than two decades. Bell Laboratories began exploring the concept in the late 1990s, and various designs and prototypes have emerged using paper, plastic, or metal foil substrates. In 2000, for example, researchers at Cambridge University developed an inexpensive microchip technology using plastic. At that time, the goal was to build flexible displays and embed chips in clothing.  .... ' 

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