Plastic microchips ahead

Plastic microchips could open up new computing possibilities...

Researchers at Cambridge University are developing cheap microchip technology using plastic that some pundits believe could lead to a revolution within the processor industry.

Plastic Logic, the company behind the project, hopes to demonstrate commercial prototypes next summer.

It says that it has developed and patented a method of printing plastic to a polymer substrate, making cheap and flexible plastic transistors.

While the company concedes that plastic semiconductors are unlikely to replace silicon chips anytime soon, it argues the technology could lead to a new generation of low cost smart appliances.

Areas likely to benefit from plastic processors include flat panel computer displays and smart appliances. Cheap plastic transistors would allow large TFT (Thin Film Transistor) flat panel displays, which use a transistor per each pixel, to be produced cheaply. Plastic microchips could also allow everyday disposable items, such as price tags or tickets, to carry out basic computing tasks.

Plastic Logic is funded by Cambridge venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners and is headed up by entrepreneur and cofounder of Acorn Computers Hermann Hauser. "They would not replace silicon," Hauser told ZDNet. "But they could be so cheap that they could be put on everything."

Jim Tully, chief analyst at Gartner's Semiconductor Group, says that this could be a new area for the semiconductor industry to explore. "There's an emerging type of semiconductor technology that is not based on super high speed," he said. "There are a lot of applications that could benefit [from this technology]."

Current computer semiconductors are based on silicon, which must go through a complicated manufacturing process. Microprocessors based on plastic would be simpler and cheaper to produce and would expand the reach of the microprocessor industry. While a plant for manufacturing silicon microprocessors costs billions of pounds to build, Hauser estimates that a plastic microchip plant would be a hundred times cheaper to set up.

The technology is based on work from professors Richard Friend and Henning Siringhaus at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University. Amadeus Capital Partners has invested £1.75m in the venture. Other investors include CRIL (Cambridge Research and Innovation) and US chemical company Dow Ventures.

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