Plastic processor prototype developed

A European start-up company is on its way to developing a microprocessor manufacturing technique that uses a flexible plastic material for the motherboard instead of the industry-standard silicon. A plastic processor prototype from Plastic Logic Ltd. is expected by next summer.

Cambridge, U.K.-based Plastic Logic invented the method of printing plastic onto a polymer substrate as a way to replace silicon chips for the transistors used in semiconductors, according to a statement made by Amadeus Capital Partners, which recently invested in the start-up.

Unlike silicon-based processors that are fabricated on brittle, flat wafers, Plastic Logic’s fabrication process prints the chips on rolls of film that can be applied to a variety of surfaces, such as clothing.

According to representatives for Amadeus, the plastic chips are cheaper to produce than silicon chips.

But some industry analysts are skeptical, saying that silicon is not an expensive material and not in short supply.

“[Silicon] is basically highly refined sand,” explained Nathan Brookwood, an analyst for Saratogo, Calif.-based Insight 64.

Brookwood said that while some silicon-based microprocessors sell for as much as US$5,000, the vast majority of chips are very small silicon processors that cost less than a dollar.

Company’s that manufacture talking greeting cards that utilize tiny battery-powered chips inside them incur costs of only 25 cents per chip, according to Brookwood. And the raw silicon component of those same chips accounts for no more than pennies on the total cost, he said.

Brookwood also warned that global investments in silicon processor fabrication plants, which he said closes in on US$100 billion, would have a company such as Plastic Logic essentially swimming upstream in an industry fixed in silicon.

Echoing this downbeat view, officials for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel said they believe that the technology, while of interest to its scientists, is destined for “the extreme low end” of the processor market. Consequently, Intel has no plans to pursue plastic as an alternative to silicon for any of its processor categories, the officials said.

Plastic Logic knows that plastic will not be replacing silicon in desktop PCs anytime soon.

“The first thing to say is that nobody’s expecting us to do Pentium-class machines,” said Stuart Evans, CEO of Plastic Logic.

Commercial products might become available within three years to five years, Evans said.

“We see a market for electronic labels, tags and cards where you don’t need much intelligence and you need a flat [form factor].”

The flatness and flexibility of plastic could be an advantage for applications such as intelligent clothing labels and could give plastic the edge in the market for processors used in laptop screens, he said. Electronic books and newspapers are also areas where plastic chips could play a role, Evans added, claiming it would now be relatively easy to phase in plastic chips as a replacement for bar codes, because they could be integrated with the existing bar code infrastructure.

Although Evans does not expect huge cost savings over comparable low-end silicon processors, he said there should nevertheless be some cost advantage – given a large enough market or the right market dynamics. He used the example of the trend for larger LCDs.

“As LCDs get bigger, the costs [of producing them] get exponentially higher,” Evans said, adding that switching to plastic could help alleviate this.

Plastic Logic was founded by two polymer electronics researchers – professor Richard Friend, of Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University and co-founder of Cambridge Display Technology, and Dr. Henning Sirringhaus, a lecturer at Cavendish Laboratory.

– With files from Matthew Woollacott, (U.S.).