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Generations of Moore’s Law–


like doubling needed before
thin-film transistors are as
densely packed as today’s
fastest GPU s and FPGA s

Plotting a Moore’s
At a meeting in mid- near field communicator:
town Manhattan, Kris There are 1,700 transistors on the
flexible chip in this NFC transmitter.
Myny picks up what looks

Law for Flexible like an ordinary paper business card and, with little fanfare,
holds it to his smartphone. The details of the card appear
almost immediately on the screen inside a custom app.

Electronics It’s a simple demonstration, but Myny thinks it heralds an


exciting future for flexible circuitry. In January, he began a five-
year project at the nanoelectronics research institute Imec in
A five-year project at Imec aims to make
big boosts in the density of thin-film Leuven, Belgium, to demonstrate that thin-film electronics has
­transistor circuitry significant potential outside the realm of display electronics. In
fact, he hopes that the project, funded with a €1.5 million grant
from the European Research Council (ERC), could demonstrate
that there is a path for the mass production of denser and denser
flexible circuits—in other words, a Moore’s Law for bendable ICs.
Five years ago, Myny and his colleagues reported that they
imec

had used organic thin-film transistors to build an 8-bit micro-

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Silicon
processor on flexible plastic. In the transistor density from 5,000 or so
years since, the group has turned devices per square centimeter to
its focus to IGZO—a metal-oxide 100,000. That figure isn’t far from
semiconductor that is a mixture the density of thin-film transistors
of indium, gallium, zinc, and oxy- in conventional rigid-display back- Valley’s
Latest Craze:
gen. Thin-film transistors based on planes today, Myny says. However,
this substance can move charge sig- it’s another matter to try to achieve
nificantly faster than their organic that density with digital logic cir-
counterparts do; at the same time cuits—which require more compli-
the transistors can still be built cated designs—and to make sure
at or around room temperature— those devices are reliable and con-
Brain Tech
an important requirement when sistent when they’re built on a deli-
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg,
attempting to fabricate electronics cate and irregular substrate.
and other big players have
directly onto plastic and other mate- The group also wants to prove
started neurotech initiatives
rials that can be easily deformed or this density is achievable outside
damaged by heat. the lab, by adapting manufactur-
To build that business card, Myny ing techniques that are already in Silicon Valley’s biggest
and his colleagues engineered use in display fabs. Myny says that inf luencers want to get
a f lexible chip containing more if he and his team hit their goals, inside your head. Over the
than 1,700 thin-film IGZO tran- a square centimeter of fast, flex- past year, four leading fig-
sistors. What sets the chip apart ible circuitry could be built at a ures have announced plans to make gad-
from other efforts is its ability to cost of 1 U.S. cent (assuming high- gets that will either nestle into the fleshy
comply with the ISO14443‑A Near volume manufacturing). At the folds of your brain or sit atop your head
Field Communication (NFC) stan- same time, while the density of the to read your thoughts from the outside.
dard. For flexible circuitry, this is circuits increases, the group will The proposed hardware and appli-
a demanding set of requirements, also have to boost the transistor cations are varied, but all signify ambi-
Myny says, as it requires logic gates frequency and drive down power tious—even audacious—undertakings.
that are fast enough to work with consumption to prevent overheat- Whether working on medical devices
the 1­ 3.56-megahertz standard car- ing. The overall goal, Myny says, to fix a neural deficiency or consumer
rier frequency. is to demonstrate “that you can gizmos to augment normal brainpower,
Adding to the challenge is that indeed make flexible circuits—that each of the four Valley visionaries prom-
while IGZO is an effective n-type it is not science fiction but that it ises to have something ready for the
semiconductor, allowing electrons is going to market.” market in just a few short years.
to flow easily, it is not a particularly When it comes to the fabrication Neural engineers have mixed feelings
good p-type material; there is no of complex digital circuits on flex- about these high-profile announcements
comparable material that excels ible substrates, “Imec is in my opin- from the likes of Elon Musk and Mark
at permitting the flow of holes—the ion the biggest player,” says Niko Zuckerberg. “There’s a lot of excitement
absence of electrons that are treated Münzenrieder, a lecturer at the when this cast of characters gets involved,”
as positive charges. Today’s logic University of Sussex, in England, says Paul Sajda, a professor of biomedical
uses both p- and n-type devices; who specializes in flexible electron- engineering at Columbia University, in
the complementary pairing helps ics. He notes that metal-oxide flex- New York City, and an expert on advanced
control power consumption by pre- ible circuitry is already starting to technologies for brain research.
venting the flow of current when make commercial inroads, and he But Sajda wonders if these deep-­
transistors are not in the act of expects the first big applications pocketed individuals know what they’re
switching. With just n-type devices to be in RFID and NFC technol- getting into. “The typical Silicon Val-
to work with, Myny and his col- ogy. “It’s not a mature technology,” ley attitude is that if you throw enough
leagues have to devise a different he says, “but it’s nearly ready for money at something, you can solve
kind of circuitry. everyday use.” the problem,” Sajda says. While that
With the ERC project, Imec —R achel Courtl a nd approach may work for applied tech-
aims to tackle a suite of interre- nology, he says, it doesn’t necessarily
↗ Post your comments at http://spectrum.ieee.
lated problems in an effort to boost org/flexible0717 work if there are fundamental science

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