A Cheaper Chip

4 minute read

For Simon Jones, Vice President of product development at Plastic Logic, his company’s mission comes down to this simple but startling question: “What if you could print electronics on just about anything at very low cost?” A corner office at the Cambridge, U.K., firm is filled with models of products that could be built: hospital bracelets synched to update when info is added to a medical file, musical scores that refresh so you’d never need to turn a page and a series of portable text displays. That, says Jones, is what happens when you can make circuits not from silicon but from plastic.

Ever since conductive polymers were developed in the 1970s, researchers and entrepreneurs have wondered whether they could make commercially viable plastic electronics. Unlike microchips made of amorphous silicon and glass, polymer chips are light, hard to break and — perhaps best of all — as cheap as plastic. Although plastic transistors don’t perform well enough to make the polymer PC a realistic goal for many years, they are quickly becoming suitable for applications where fragile silicon chips are impractical. Imagine electronics so cheap you could put them in disposable packaging, for example, or so light and flexible you could put them in your clothes. Processes similar to ink-jet printing can literally print circuitry onto materials. Because Plastic Logic can do this at room temperature, and because plastic is cheaper to begin with, some estimate its plastic chips might cost as little as one-tenth of conventional silicon chips, once volume picks up in coming years.

In the race to market, Plastic Logic took an early and significant lead. On Jan. 3, the company announced it would build a factory in Dresden, Germany, to create its flexible, portable text display — a device that would let you carry your whole library on a sheet of plastic. That makes it the first plant proposed anywhere that would produce plastic transistors on a commercial scale. Plastic Logic’s plant attracted $100 million from such backers as Oak Investment Partners, Intel, Bank of America and BASF. “We believe there is nothing silicon transistors can do that polymer transistors won’t be able to do eventually,” says Hermann Hauser, a former physicist and now a partner at Plastic Logic financier Amadeus Capital Partners Ltd.

Others agree. On Jan. 24, an Eindhoven, Netherlands, spin-off from Philips unveiled plans for its own mass-production facility in Southampton, U.K. The firm, Polymer Vision, will make a 5-in. screen that can be rolled up to the thickness of a cell phone. But even though it announced its factory site after Plastic Logic’s, the Dutch company plans to produce at commercial volumes sooner: as early as this year.

Has a new era of consumer electronics begun? Market researchers at Virginia-based NanoMarkets, which reports on micro- and nanotechnology, predict plastic electronics will be worth nearly $35 billion by 2014. That’s about the same value as today’s global recorded-music industry. Executives rhapsodize on grocery-store displays that will advertise directly to you, based on information picked up from, say, a chip in your cell phone. Perishables like milk could be packaged with sensors layered in their cardboard to let you know whether they’ve always been stored at appropriate temperatures. Other products in the pipeline include plastic solar panels, low-cost memory sticks and displays like big-screen TVs that could be rolled up and stashed when guests come over.

Back in 2007, Plastic Logic hasn’t yet unveiled its portable reader, due on the U.S. market for the 2008 holiday season. But Jones and his demo room give good clues of what it looks like. Flexible enough that you don’t need to worry about dropping it, firm enough to hold in one hand and roughly the area of a sheet of paper, the reader could be built to hold, say, a gigabyte of data. That’s space enough for 1,000 standard-length books — or the text of the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica three times over, with room to spare for the Harry Potter series.

Polymer Vision wants to integrate its roll-out displays into phones and PDAs. It inked a deal on Feb. 5 to produce Cellular Book with Telecom Italia. It’s also planning a consumer device like the Plastic Logic reader, but with a much smaller screen.

The firms no doubt battle for some of the same customers, but Plastic Logic’s Jones thinks there’s room for both. And, as he sees it, the companies are pioneering processes and developing the supplier base that will make a new wave of high-tech gadgetry possible. “This commercialization is putting that infrastructure in place,” Jones says. If he has his way, it will let him put electronics on just about anything.

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