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Pentium Challenge

This is all a mighty attractive vision. But can printed electronics actually compete with multibillion-dollar fabs in making the exacting circuitry needed for high-quality logic? Sigurd Wagner, for one, doesn’t think so. A professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University, Wagner is also pursuing research into printed inorganic logic, but he sees its promise in cheap electronics that can be used over large surfaces, not in taking on high-quality microprocessors.

His goal, says Wagner, “isn’t competing with integrated-circuit technology; it’s to go into an area that traditional integrated circuits can’t handle.” Attractive applications include wallpaper that acts like a giant display screen, electronics woven into textiles-even “electronic skin” covering an aircraft that is able to respond mechanically to changing conditions.

Jacobson agrees that the short-term payoff will come in producing the cheap, flexible electronics that could make such applications possible. “There are a huge number of applications for incredibly inexpensive, low-power disposable logic on plastic substrates,” he says. And for now, Jacobson’s printed circuits are better suited for these uses. For one thing, they are still far too slow for advanced logic applications; while Jacobson’s inorganic transistors are an order of magnitude faster than the printed organic transistors made by Lucent and other research groups, they’re still 100 times slower than the best inorganic transistors made from conventional techniques.

But making tomorrow’s Pentium-like chips on a desktop fab remains the twinkle in Jacobson’s eye. That will take increasing the speed of the printed inorganic logic. It’s “likely a several-year research project,” he says, “but we believe it’s doable.”

It’s just the type of challenge and hugely ambitious project that Jacobson relishes. It is the type of project that makes you rethink the possibilities of a very familiar object. With E Ink, he is giving a new twist to a very old invention-the printed page. Rather than throw out the newspaper, Jacobson wants to preserve its virtues while updating it for the information age. And now he’s rethinking the fabrication of integrated circuits. If Jacobson can make his visions of printed circuitry practical, he could change the meaning of “hardware” and replace the multibillion-dollar semiconductor fab with something not so different from the stamps that have been around for thousands of years.

While the rest of the computing industry attempts to drive down hardware prices through mass production of a few standardized chips, Jacobson is going in the opposite direction, trying to make every person the master-and manufacturer-of his or her own logic.

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