Flexible computer processor may be the most powerful plastic chip yet

Could a flexible processor stuck on your produce track the freshness of your cantaloupe? That’s the idea behind the most recent processor from UK computer chip designer Arm, which says such a device could possibly be made for pennies by printing circuits directly onto paper, cardboard or cloth. The technology could give trillions of everyday items such as clothes and food containers the opportunity to collect, process and transmit data over the internet – something that could possibly be as convenient for retailers since it is concerning for privacy advocates.

In recent decades, processors have reduced in size and price to the idea they are now commonly used in everything from televisions to washers and watches. But almost all chips manufactured today are rigid devices created on silicon wafers in highly specialised and costly factories where a large number of complex chemical and mechanical processes take up to eight weeks from start to finish. Now, Arm is rolling out a 32-bit processor called PlasticARM with circuits and parts that are printed onto a plastic substrate, just as a printer deposits ink in some recoverable format.

James Myers at Arm says the processor can run a variety of programs, although it currently uses read-only memory so is only in a position to execute the code it had been constructed with. Future versions use fully programmable and flexible memory.

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“It won’t be fast, it won’t be energy conserving, but if I’m going to wear it a lettuce to track shelf life, that’s the theory,” he says. “We’re still looking for the applications, similar to the original processor guys in the 1970s. Is this about smart packaging? Is it likely to be gas sensors that may let you know whether something is safe to eat or not? It may be wearable health patches, that’s a great project we’re looking at.”

Flexible chips have already been made before, but Arm’s device may be the most effective yet demonstrated. It has 56,340 elements packed into significantly less than 60 square millimetres. This gives it around 12 times more pieces to carry out calculations than the previous best flexible chip.

Arm, founded in 1985 as Acorn, creates and licenses designs for computer chips which are then produced by third parties. The business claims that 160 billion chips have already been manufactured using its technology, but if the Internet of Things grows to include everyday household objects, there may be market for trillions of flexible computer chips.

Journal reference: Nature , DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03625-w

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