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Plastic Electronics Head for Market

The first commercial flexible electronics are, after more than a decade of development, finally on their way.

In the past few weeks, two leading startup companies have separately announced plans to scale up commercial production of flexible plastic electronics. Unlike silicon components, polymer-based semiconductors can be fabricated on flexible substrates. The announcements are likely to lead to an explosion of small portable devices with uncharacteristically large displays that fold up or roll up into the device.

An image of an electronic map on a rollable active-matrix display made by Polymer Vision.

Earlier this week, the Dutch firm Polymer Vision, which was spun off from Philips Electronics last year, said that within the coming months it will begin producing its first device: a foldable electronic reader dubbed Readius. The device is scheduled to become commercially available in the second half of the year. And last month Plastic Logic, a Cambridge University startup, said that it had received $100 million in funding for a high-volume production facility dedicated to printing organic electronics. “The factory will produce its first products in 2008,” says Henning Sirringhaus, a Cambridge University physicist who cofounded the company in Cambridge, UK.

Large-scale fabrication of these circuits is an important step, especially for new types of paperlike displays, says Russ Wilcox, CEO of E-Ink, based in Cambridge, MA. Although companies like E-Ink already have on the market electronic-paper devices, such as Sony’s E-reader (see “Tech’s Libris”), that feature displays with paperlike image quality, these devices have rigid screens. Making electronic paper that is bendable will require the use of the flexible polymer-based circuitry. “The promise of electronic paper is not just the look but also the feel of paper,” says Wilcox. “And you can’t have that without plastic electronics.”

Despite a common goal, there are huge differences in the way the two companies are approaching the plastic-electronics market. Polymer Vision, which was spun out of the Philips Incubator Programme, in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, in January, is concentrating on getting its product to market first, so it has opted to stick with traditional lithographic fabrication techniques more typically used to make silicon chips.

There are a number of advantages to this, says Pieter van Lieshout, head of product research and development. Besides allowing the company to get to market sooner, lithographic fabrication is a mature technology, he says. This not only reduces capital costs, but it also inspires confidence because the technology is tried and tested, says Guido Aelbers, Polymer Vision’s COO.

Plastic Logic, on the other hand, is building a new facility in Dresden, Germany, that will print the polymer electronics. It will use nozzles to deposit tiny liquid droplets of semiconductor polymer materials on a plastic substrate to form circuits in much the same way that inkjets print type on paper. By taking this approach, Plastic Logic should, in the long run, benefit in terms of cost and speed. Its facility will be capable of producing more than a million units a year–several times more than Polymer Vision.

There are advantages to both approaches, says E-Ink’s Wilcox, whose firm has partnerships with both companies. But a printing approach particularly lends itself to high-volume, low-cost production.

It’s likely that both companies will eventually branch out into making, in addition to displays, flexible radio frequency ID (RFID) tags. But even experts say that it’s difficult to predict precisely what applications plastic electronics will be used in. “Silicon is so advanced and sophisticated [that] it’s hard to see how plastic electronics could replace it,” says Sirringhaus. So it seems inevitable that the polymer-electronics startups will have to stick with flexible applications, where silicon is unable to compete.

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