Skip to Content

Computing on Glass

A new form of silicon enables see-through circuitry.
April 1, 2003

Silicon is a substance that demands compromises. If you want fast electronics for your PC, you need the good stuff: single-crystal silicon. If you can do with somewhat slower electronics but need them to be thin and transparent for the screen of your laptop, you use slower amorphous silicon. A few years ago, attempting to achieve the best of both worlds, Sharp and Semiconductor Energy Laboratories in Japan collaborated to develop continuous-grain silicon, a new form of the element that’s both transparent and relatively fast at carrying electrons. Now, applying the technology to assemble a rudimentary processor on the back of the pane of glass used for a liquid-crystal display (LCD), they have created a prototype “sheet computer.”

Continuous-grain silicon’s slower cousin, amorphous silicon, can also be deposited in a see-through film onto glass and plastics. That makes it good for the thin-film transistors already used to control pixels in a laptop’s active-matrix LCD; the material transports electrons fast enough to switch pixels on and off at the required 60 to 160 times per second. But the Sharp researchers found that continuous-grain silicon, composed of many small silicon crystals linked by atomic bonds, is a far more fluid medium for electrons: transistors made from the material can handle thousands or millions of switching operations per second-enough to run useful programs.

“Continuous-grain siliconoffers atomic-level continuity, which enables electrons to travel smoothly and with high mobility,” explains Shigeo Misaka, the Sharp executive vice president in Japan who heads his company’s research efforts.

In demonstrations in Japan last October, the 13,000-transistor prototype’s clock speed hit 2.6 megahertz-not fast enough to run such programs as Microsoft Windows XP, which requires at least 233 megahertz of processor speed, but enough to manage such personal digital assistant (PDA) functions as datebooks, address books, and simple two-dimensional games. Because of continuous-grain silicon’s 600-fold speed advantage over amorphous silicon, Sharp’s prototype could be the precursor to a full-fledged sheet computer: a device with processor, memory, and LCD elements all bonded to a single layer of glass or plastic only a few millimeters thick. Such a computer need be no thicker than its screen. Within two years, Sharp expects to be using the technology to mass-produce fully functional PDAs the size and thickness of credit cards.

Continuous-grain silicon, however, offers only medium-speed-computing capabilities, says Philip J. Bos, a Kent State University physics professor who specializes in flat-panel, liquid-crystal media. “So you couldn’t build a Pentium on this substrate, but it could likely serve as an electronic touch pad, wall bulletin, or PDA for the typical LCD flat-panel price of $200,” he says.

Eventually, the new form of silicon could be used in products such as tablet computers, even flatter flat-screen monitors, and television screens thin enough to blend into walls. Not a bad compromise.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.