Flexible Yogurt-Lid Electronics Become a Reality
Truly flexible electronics from processor, memory, interface, and battery components are here, thanks to Intel, IBM, STMicro, Leti, Imec, Kaist, Kovio, and others.
As leading-edge semiconductor companies race toward ever-smaller, atom-sized chips, it’s easy to overlook the amazing advances made in higher nodes – especially in plastic and organic electronics. This is good news for the chip design community, as the implementations of flexible and organic electronics will renew interest in existing semiconductor intellectual-property (IP) designs.
Earlier this year, Intel Labs, Plastic Logic and Queen’s University announced joint work to create a “paper” tablet computer. Developed at Queen’s University, the flexible tablet called “PaperTab” looks and feels like a sheet of paper. It is powered by a second generation Intel Core i5 processor. Unlike today’s tablets where several apps or windows can appear on the single display, the PaperTab would have one paper per applicatio but users could have several displays – like pages in a book.
For example, IBM recently demonstrated a thin-film-like flexible circuit that resembled a “yogurt lid.” This extremely flexible film, which is rooted in a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) -based plastic substrate, contained nearly 10,000 transistors. Adele Hars, Editor-in-Chief of Advanced Substrate News, described it as follows: “IBM has developed a new, low-cost technique that starts with the Full-Depleted (FD)-SOI technology developed with ST and Leti, for manufacturing silicon-based electronics on a flexible, plastic substrate. IBM’s Gary (Patton) showed a sample (at CPT 2013), and said that ‘research suggests that flexible, affordable electronics can be made with conventional processes at room temperature.’”
IBM’s flexible electronics and related semiconductor advances were part of my brief conversation with Sean O’Kane from Chipestimate.TV: Common Platform 2013 – Walk and Talk – Sean O’Kane and John Blyler (Part 1).
Of course, it will take more than just a processing circuit to create viable commercial products from flexible and organic materials. What about a memory system, interfaces, and power source? All of these other components are now available:
Printing low-power, low-performance microprocessors onto organic materials will open a wide range of cost-effective alternatives to traditional silicon wafers.
Another example of an extremely low-power, low-performance memory application is in the emerging market of flexible, plastic electronics. A team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) recently reported such a device [i.e., a fully functional, flexible, nonvolatile, resistive random-access memory (RRAM)].
> Kovio’s near-field communications (NFC) wireless tag is created using electronic inks and industrial graphics printing tools instead of more expensive ICs on silicon wafers.
Researchers have demonstrated a flat, “stretchy” battery that can be pulled to three times its size without a loss in performance.
As consumers, the age of flexible, “yogurt-lid” electronics may finally be here. With these advances, everything from our clothes to cereal boxes may serve as personal computers and communication systems.