These Bendy Plastic Foils fit in unusual places

like anyone Designing computer chips for a living, James Myers is, in essence, a silicon man. “Silicon is great,” he says. Shiny because it’s natural Semiconductors– Able to conduct electricity and act as an insulator, depending on conditions – and because it can be designed on a small scale. Shiny because it is the second most common element on Earth, probably clinging to the soles of your feet now, and it can easily be produced by heating sand. These traits have made it the cornerstone of nearly every technology we use today. People like Myers, an engineer at a British semiconductor company an armThey mostly spend their time thinking about how to pack more silicon into less space – an exponential march of thousands transistors per chip in the 1970s to billions today. With Mor .’s LawWe are, in the words of Myers, “swim in silicon.”

But over the past few years, Myers has been looking beyond silicone to other materials, such as plastic. This means starting over from the beginning. A few years ago, his team began designing plastic chips that contained dozens of transistors, then hundreds, and now, like mentioned in nature Wednesday, Tens of thousands. A 32-bit microprocessor contains 18,000 logic gates – the switches you get from integrating transistors – and the basic lobes of a computer’s brain: processor, memory, controller, input and output, etc. So what can you do? Think desktops from the early 80s.

Why turn back the technological clock? Because modern silicon Chips Fragile and inflexible electronic chips. Under pressure, they break. And although silicone is cheap, and cheaper, there are some use cases that may not be cheap enough. Consider a computer chip placed inside a milk carton, replacing the printed expiration date with a sensor that detects chemical signs of spoilage. useful? Sorta! But it’s only worth adding billions of milk cartons if the cost is minimal. One of the applications Arm is testing is a chest-mounted chip that monitors a patient’s arrhythmia — an irregular, restless heartbeat — that should clear up after a few hours. Therefore, you want a computer that is inexpensive, but more importantly, a computer that bends. “He needs to move in with you, not go out,” Myers says.

A number of materials can theoretically satisfy these needs. Researchers have made transistors from organic materials and designed substrates – the chip the transistors are inserted into – from metallic foil and even paper. The chip team that Myers described on Wednesday consists of “thin film transistors” made of metal oxides — a mixture of indium, gallium and zinc — that can be made thinner than their silicon counterparts. The substrate is a polyimide, a type of plastic, not a silicon wafer. It’s cheap, thin, and flexible—and it’s also a bit of a pain for engineering. Plastic melts at a lower temperature than silicon, which means that some production techniques that involve heat are no longer usable. And thin film transistors may contain defects, which means that power does not move around circuits in the ways that chip makers expect. Compared to modern chips, the design also uses more power. Myers points out that these are the same problems that confused chip makers in the 1970s and 1980s. He can now empathize with his older colleagues.

Compared to the billions found in modern 64-bit silicon processors, 18,000 Gates doesn’t seem like much, but Myers speaks about them with pride. Sure, the microprocessor doesn’t do much; It runs some test code that it wrote five years ago that makes sure all components are working. The chip can run the same type of code as one of the popular silicon-based Arm processors.

Consistency with silicon devices is key, explains Kathryn Ramsdale, research co-author and senior vice president of technology at PragmatIC, which designs and produces flexible chips using Arm. While the materials are new, the idea is to borrow as much as possible from the silicon wafer production process. In this way, it is easier to mass-produce chips and lower costs. These chips may cost about a tenth of what similar silicon chips do, Ramsdale says, due to cheap plastic and lower equipment needs. It is, yes, a “pragmatic” way of approaching things, she says.

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