On Wednesday, the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE:LU) revealed a technique that uses silicon rubber stamps to print computer circuits on flexible plastics, curved surfaces and, someday, even special clothing fibers.
"Conventional techniques are good to working on smooth, flat polished surfaces using inorganic matter," said John Rogers, the chemist at Bell Labs, who created the new technique. "This new process opens up a whole lot of possibilities for us, like using organic materials."
The technique uses a rubber stamp made of silicone gel to essentially "print" the circuit pattern on whatever kind of surface being used as the base. Silk-screening and other techniques to create so-called "plastic transistors" have been proposed, but none can create really small transistors. Lucent's rubber stamping method can make circuits that are as small as those on an Intel Pentium III processor.
Is 'e paper' in your future?
All that from a material that is similar to what "has gotten Dow Corning into such troubles," said Rogers.
Its roots are not making analysts take the technology any less seriously, said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst at chip technology watcher, MicroDesign Research Inc. "The technology sounds goofy, but the applications don't have to be goofy. There are a lot of potential interesting uses there."
Like electronic paper, for one. Made of plastic, electronic paper can change what is "written" on it by having data downloaded to it -- an idea dreamed up at the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and which is now being developed by E Ink Corp.
The Cambridge, Mass. company -- spun off from the MIT research team that thought up the concept -- sees electronic paper coming soon, due in no small part to Bell Labs' research. "This is very exciting development for E Ink on the way to low-cost all-printed electronics, and we see it as an important part of our vision for electronic paper," said Paul Drziac, director of technology for the two-year-old start up.
Start of a beautiful friendship?
In fact, E Ink will most likely have first dibs on the technology. In his statements, Bell Labs' Rogers hinted at a partnership between the researchers at Lucent's Bell Labs and E Ink, calling the companies "good friends."
While electronic paper may be the most exciting application of the technology, there are many others. Electronic luggage and inventory tags could be created to make tracking packages easier. Tunable lasers and electrically controlled optical fiber could improve future communications.
All in all, the new technology does not threaten silicon's reign as the basis for computer chips, but tackles a whole new class of applications. "We're trying not to compete directly with silicon," said Rogers. "I wouldn't necessarily see us replacing the circuit board, but in finding ways to create the board cheaper."