Is this story a waste of ink?

There's an aspect of technology journalism that I'm finding troublesome. Perhaps you can help.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

There's an aspect of technology journalism that I'm finding troublesome. Perhaps you can help.

A good example is this story, which I reproduce in part with thoughts interspersed. In this case and against protocol, I haven't linked to the original or identified the source, but it'll take you microseconds to find out through Google, if you want:

U.S. researchers have developed a new type of semiconductor ink that brings companies a step closer to making bendable computer screens or inexpensive sensor tags to help retailers keep track of their inventory.

Well, good. Except that we already have bendable computer screens and inexpensive sensor tags. What's new?

The discovery lies in the new material -- a soluble semiconductor ink capable of carrying a negative electrical charge, said Philippe Inagaki, chief executive officer of Polyera Corp, a specialty chemicals company in Skokie, Illinois, that makes materials for flexible and printed electronics.

Polyera do indeed do this. No wonder they're keen to get their name out there.

In the traditional silicon world there are two fundamental types of semiconductors: P-type, which carry a positive charge, and N-type, which carry a negative charge. So far, most semiconductor inks, such as one developed by a team at Xerox Corp in 2004, have only been capable of carrying a positive charge, they said. The new ink -- developed by researchers at Polyera and BASF SE unit BASF Future Business GmbH and described in the journal Nature -- is an N-type.

Note that 'most'. Polyera already lists nine different N type semiconductor inks on its site. Lots of other people have made them. And have been making them for some time. So, what's special about this?

"When you have both you make chips and circuits that are faster and more reliable and more energy-efficient. And that's a pretty big deal," Inagaki said in a telephone interview.

When you have both p type and n type, you have a semiconductor. That's how they work. Chips and circuits with just p type or n type materials would indeed be slower and less reliable. They wouldn't work at all (pace Schottky, but if we're talking about speed...).

He said the new semiconductor ink can be printed onto flexible materials, such as a thin film of plastic or even paper, using a modified ink-jet printer. "What you really want to do is print it like a newspaper," Inagaki said. "That is really fast and really cheap."

It is (and that's why silicon chip fab plants are really enormous, mutant, poisonous printing presses). But the problems with doing this with liquid organic semiconductors are much greater than just having the right inks - of which, as mentioned, there are many. How does this new ink help? We just don't know.

And so on, and so forth. Now, here's the problem. The story as it stands is no story. There could be a story there - the mention of a paper in Nature is promising - but without anything else to go on, it looks like one of hundreds of similar 'breakthrough' stories that don't really stand scrutiny.

But the story is going to be - hell, has. Go check Google News - been widely taken up. If I spend time researching it, then it's going to take a day or two and I'll look like I've missed the news that everyone else has already printed - or, I'll end up with nothing except lost time spent on a non-story. In any case, I can't afford to do that for every story that looks superficially interesting but wobbles alarmingly in a stiff breeze. If I ignore it, then it looks as if I'm missing the news altogether. I can't run the story as it is, because it isn't a story. It is smart PR, that understands how to manipulate the news.

So: what should I do? About the only useful thing I can think of is running a list of science - and sciency - stories at the end of each week, with a short review (much shorter than this one) and a star rating. At least that way when I do get something completely wrong - as I might have here! - I'll learn when the unhappy PR sends me a remonstrative note...

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