Friday, November 14, 2008

Plastics, Part 2

Here is a follow-up article to my previous post. This was originally published on in January 2007.

How Plastics And Nanotechnology Are Changing The Microchip Industry And The World We Live In

In an article I wrote for the July 2006 edition of The Edge, I used plastics as a metaphor to describe the dawning age of nanotechnology and how applied uses of the new science will sneak into our daily lives with little or no fanfare, as did plastic products. But little did I know when I wrote those words that plastics were still on the march too, particularly in the microchip industry. However, let me add that nanotechnology is behind this important development. So, there!

Many major companies and some upstarts are investing heavily to produce plastic polymer microchips, including Philips, Hitachi, Samsung, Lucent, and Plastic Logic. Plastic Logic? This seven year-old British company has developed the world’s first working plastic microchip prototype. More on the company later in this article.

Why do we need plastic microchips? After all, silicon is basically sand so how expensive can silicon microchips be to produce? Why would companies spend millions from their R&D budgets on plastic microchips? To paraphrase a well-known line from The X-Files, because the future is out there.

Plastic chips will be less costly to manufacture. The cost savings are more related to manufacturing and scale than to the cost of raw materials. Silicon chips require very expensive and elaborate fabrication plants, which use high temperatures and vacuums in manufacturing and also produce large amounts of waste. Plastics chips can be produced much more cheaply. With plastic polymers, there is even the potential that we can use ink-jet printing technology to make chips in our homes. “Honey, I just printed a new circuit board for the refrigerator.”

Let’s take a quick look at the science. Until recently, plastic polymers conducted electricity too slowly to challenge silicon-based materials. But it is all about chemistry in the end. Change the chemical makeup of the plastic, and all bets are off. “I was there because there was chemistry.” Monica Lewinsky. Sorry…where did that quote come from?

Let me make this quick. Using nanotechnology, scientists have modified a plastic polymer by altering its molecular structure, creating a product that can more efficiently conduct a current. And there is more: You can dissolve this new polymer to produce a current-conducting ink and then apply the ink to most any surface, from paper to buildings.

Perhaps even more than the manufacturing cost savings, the increased number of industrial, medical, scientific, business, electronic, and consumer products that can use these plastic chips is incentive enough for many companies to invest. The possibilities appear endless.

Imagine your favorite newspaper or magazine displayed on e-paper with the most current news and articles downloaded over your wireless network. So, if you didn’t have time to check the news before work, toss the e-paper into your briefcase and read it on the train. Think also of billboards automated to change in an instant, allowing many companies to time-share a few choice billboards. Consider that hospitals will be able to use flexible plastic circuit boards as patient ID bracelets, which can contain the patients’ entire medical histories and display the information directly on the bracelet or remotely to a doctor catching a quick nine holes on a pretty day.

Eventually prices of many consumer electronics will plummet because of the new low cost technology. Devices such as computers, satellite receivers, televisions, digital recorders, mobile phones, global positioning devices, and game machines will be easier to afford and become more ubiquitous in our global village, thus allowing the information revolution to continue expanding into new markets.

Then there are the non-traditional products that the second wave of plastic microchips will invade, from clothing to food. With plastic threads and sensors woven into your clothes, you will have direct access to telephone services and the Internet and have no need for bulky separate devices. Wish you had worn a different color jacket when you left home? Not to worry, just touch a sensor and the jacket changes appearance from red to blue in an instant. On your way home, stop at the market to buy a quick meal for your family, and the electronic cooking container instructs your smart microwave or oven how to cook it.

As I promised, let’s take a look at Plastic Logic, the apparent leading company in this new plastic world. Since securing about $100 million in investment capital, this small British company is constructing a manufacturing complex in Dresden, Germany. The facility is expected to mass manufacture e-paper that is both portable and durable enough for everyday use and possessing a battery life long enough for you to read War and Peace. But with the Web 2.0 convergence of voice, text, and video, the e-paper has perhaps even greater possibilities. You may be watching bits of the film along with listening to the audio book. That would make War and Peace a bit more pleasant.

Plastic Logic expects to produce its first commercial e-paper for sale next year. Wow!

As a technical writer, I can only imagine the possibilities for delivering user and training information. How about instantly refreshing deployed user guides all at once to fix the typo on page four or rewrite the wrong instruction on page 50. If we ignore these emerging technologies, it is at our own peril. Get ready. Time is short.