Christopher Intagliata: Microchips are everywhere: they’re in our computers and smartphones, of course, but also TVs, thermostats, fridges, washing machines, cars. That ever growing constellation of devices embedded with computer brains and Internet connectivity is known as the “Internet of Things.”
Lots of other stuff, though, like a carton of milk, doesn’t have a microchip or smart sensor—not to say that it couldn’t.
John Biggs: For example, imagine smart labels on food products that could alter their use-by date, depending on how they’ve been handled.
Intagliata: John Biggs is a distinguished engineer at the semiconductor company Arm. He and a team of researchers have now developed a proof-of-concept flexible chip that could be used for applications like outfitting a milk jug with computer smarts. And they say the chip is 12 times more complex than previous attempts. They describe it in a recent issue of the journal Nature. [John Biggs et al., A natively flexible 32-bit Arm microprocessor]
They claim the microprocessor is cheap to build—and it consists of thin-film transistors on a substrate of flexible, high-performance plastic rather than rigid silicon.
Biggs: This is just 40,000 transistors implemented in about 60 square millimeters. Just to compare that to—well, for example, the processor in the original iPhone back in 2007 is 14,000 times faster. So this is not a very high-performance microprocessor, but it’s targeted at applications that really don’t need that level of performance.
Intagliata: His co-author Catherine Ramsdale is senior vice president of technology at PragmatIC Semiconductor. She laid out the vision for how flexible chips like this might be used.
Ramsdale: We’re talking, here, about putting electronics on the stuff you buy in Walmart or Tesco every week, which just would help with supply chain management, waste management, provide information for real-time use-by dates, health care monitoring. It provides a level of computing that’s not available currently because it’s not economic to do it.
Biggs: Yeah, extending the Internet of Things to the “Internet of everything.”
Intagliata: Despite that enthusiasm, the two admitted the project was a long way off from commercialization.
For one, although the microprocessor is built on a substrate of flexible plastic, it was tested on a flat, not bendy, surface. Manos Tentzeris is a professor in flexible electronics at Georgia Tech, who was not involved in the work.
Tentzeris: So whenever you refer to some flexible processor or some flexible device or flexible module, one of the first results you must show is that bending this does not affect, significantly, the performance.
Intagliata: Biggs and Ramsdale said it can be a challenge to conduct tests while chips are bent or flexed—and that they’ll be looking into that in future work.
Anshel Sag, who covers the semiconductor industry for Moor Insights & Strategy, pointed out another issue. He says the chips are currently too large, and their power consumption too high, to make them viable in terms of cost.
Say: I think the use on a milk jug does make sense. But I think you also have to account for cost. And unless these can be produced at an extremely low cost, there just won’t be any viability for it.
Intagliata: Still, they all pointed out that silicon chips first reached this level of complexity a long time ago—in the 70s and 80s—and had to overcome many similar challenges to get where they are today.
And John Biggs from the semiconductor company? He’s in it for the long game.
Biggs: What I see is flexible electronics is sort of trailing silicon by about three to four decades. So if we see anything like the rapid growth we’ve seen in silicon over the last three to four decades, there could be some quite exciting developments in the area of flexible electronics over the next decade or two.
Intagliata: So that Internet of Everything may be coming. It just may take a while to get here.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]