Researchers from the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory have a chance to revolutionize the electronics industry if they can develop plastic semiconductors.
The idea is to replace the silicon wafers in standard microchips with layers or circuitry on plastic substrates. While the concept of plastic semiconductors may seem like a pipe dream, Cambridge-based startup Plastic Logic has been talking about commercializing the technology since 2000. The company is putting money where it's mouth is, too, as it has more than $100 million worth of investment funds for a factory that it plans to open in Dresden, Germany.
The technology has "tremendous potential," said Morry Marshall, vice-president for strategic technologies at Phoenix semiconductor research group Semico, adding that it was a "breakthrough that is waiting to happen."
The final product should be a plastic sheet roughly the same size as a piece of A4 sized paper, being produced at a rate of about 2.2 million a year. They will be composed of polyethylene terephthalate -- the same type of plastic used to make soft drink bottles -- and initially supplied to other companies as the basis for pieces of "electronic paper," which can display the pages of thousands of books.
We hope to make it as easy to carry around large amounts of written information using devices based on our technology as it is now to have easy access to large amounts of music using an iPod or MP3 player," said Hermann Hauser, one of Plastic Logic's founders and a Cavendish Laboratory alumnus.
The proposed plastic semiconductors will have one disadvantage compared to traditional silicon-based substrates: There is between 5 and 10 micrometers (1 micrometer is 1 millionth of a meter) between adjacent circuitry lines in the plastic semiconductors, whereas the same space in traditional semiconductors is measured in nanometers (1 nanometer is a billionth of a meter). However, Plastic Logic Chief Executive Officer John Mills said that they are developing plastic circuits with only 60 nanometers between adjacent circuitry lines.
If they could be made smaller, plastic microchips could be used for tasks for which it would not be cost-effective to employ silicon microchips. For example, a toy could have a surface where it could display its own instruction manual.
"Plastic electronics could lead to a fundamental revolution in the way the electronics industry evolves", said Mr Hauser, who also said he would not be surprised if Plastic Logic's chief scientist Henning Sirringhaus was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the field.
The Cavendish Laboratory has been lauded for it's discoveries during the past 136 years, including the genetic building blocks known as DNA and the electron.