Flexible computer chips

While everyone is talking about bendable phone screens, scientists have been working on designing a new type of flexible computer microchip with applications way beyond your smartphone or laptop.

04 October 2021

Technician holding a flexible electric circuit layout

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

Computer chips today use silicon as their base material. Silicon is a natural semiconductor, which is great at conducting electricity and acting as an insulator. Unfortunately, these silicon-based microchips are built on rigid devices in a time-consuming, highly specialised and expensive factory process.

New developments in computer chip production endeavour to address these shortcomings by replacing silicon with plastic. Plastic-based microchips, or flexible electronic devices, have many advantages over the traditional processors produced on crystalline silicon wafers. Such chips can be built on alternative substances such as paper, plastic or metal foil. Consequently, they offer much more flexibility in terms of their application, and their production is more cost-effective.

Applicability of plastic-based processors is wide. They can be, quite literally, printed on many everyday materials. Researchers working on the technology point to wearable health patches that can monitor human body functions, or micro-processors printed on milk cartons to track milk expiry date. This is great news for the proponents of Internet of Things (IoT) as more and more products and objects can be connected to the world wide web.

Flexible electronic devices have been created and tested before. However, this breakthrough represents a significant improvement in the processing power of the chips. With 56,340 components packed into less than 60 square millimetres, the newest devices have around 12 times more components to carry out calculations than the previous best flexible chips. Moreover, the processors are built using the same architecture that’s already used in other devices. This mean the use of plastic chips would not require a significant industry adjustment.

Plastic micro-chips are not intended as a replacement to silicon-based chips. Their purpose it to serve as a contribution to the growing needs of software enabled devices. Their flexible design is not only fascinating but has the potential to usher a new way of interacting with a variety of products and devices.