The group has demonstrated the ability to form working circuits, a problem in previous attempts at high-performance transistors on plastic because the methods were prone to flaws. The next challenges is scaling up to larger circuits, which Kane says should be possible.
Sarnoff is already looking for ways to market the technology. One company is interested in using the circuits in sheets of tiny ultrasound detectors used to monitor the structural integrity of storage drums and other objects.
The devices could eventually be much more powerful, says Tayo Akinwande, an electrical engineering professor at MIT and co-chair of the session where the work was presented. The flexible circuits use the same CMOS technology as in today’s computers, except that the transistors are much bigger, akin to the size of state-of-the-art transistors in the 1970s. Akinwande says that just as computers have become dramatically faster as the size of transistors shrank, so processors on plastic will get faster as well.
Beyond displays and antennas, the technology might someday be incorporated into clothing, or speakers with microdevices that “shape sound,” Akinwande says. The most interesting applications, he says, may be completely different from anything we have now. “You’re not going to use it to try to make a microprocessor,” he says. “If you did that, you’d lose your shirt. But you could try to do some things that regular silicon cannot do right now. And that is left to our imagination.”
But the display applications alone may be enough to drive near-term research in high-performance flexible processing. “This display field is so huge now,” says Sigmund Wagner. “The business volume is about a third of all integrated circuits – that will push more and more R&D in that area.”