A plastic processor and printed memory show that computing doesn't have to rely on inflexible silicon.
Silicon may run the computers that surround us, but the rigid inflexibility of the semiconductor means it cannot reach everywhere. The first computer processor and memory chips made out of plastic semiconductors suggest that, someday, nothing will be out of bounds for computer power and we are getting closer every day.
Researchers in Europe used 4,000 plastic, or organic, transistors to create the plastic microprocessor, which measures roughly two centimeters square and is built on top of flexible plastic foil. "Compared to using silicon, this has the advantage of lower price and that it can be flexible," says Jan Genoe at the IMEC nanotechnology center in Leuven, Belgium.
The processor can so far run only one simple program of 16 instructions and run at a speed of six hertz, on the order of a million times slower than a modern desktop machine. Organic transistors have already been used in certain LED displays and RFID tags, but have not been combined in such numbers, or used to make a processor of any kind until now.
Making the processor begins with a 25-micrometer thick sheet of flexible plastic, like what you might wrap your lunch. A layer of gold electrodes are deposited on top, followed by an insulating layer of plastic, and the plastic semiconductors that make up the processor's 4,000 transistors. In the future, such processors could be made more cheaply by printing them. This may prove to be the future of chip technology, but personally, I still like my chips made from potatoes.