A flexible microprocessor could enable an “Internet of everything”

Christophe Intagliata: Microchips are everywhere: they are in our computers and smartphones, of course, but also in televisions, thermostats, refrigerators, washing machines, cars. This ever-growing constellation of devices with computer brains and Internet connectivity is known as the “Internet of Things”.

Lots of other things, however, like a carton of milk, don’t have a microchip or smart sensor, not to say they couldn’t.

John Biggs: For example, imagine smart labels on food products that could change their expiration date, depending on how they’ve been handled.

Intaglio: John Biggs is a Distinguished Engineer with Semiconductor Company Arm. He and a team of researchers have now developed a flexible proof of concept chip that could be used for applications such as equipping a milk jug with computer intelligence. And they say the chip is 12 times more complex than previous attempts. They describe it in a recent issue of the journal Nature. [John Biggs et al., A natively flexible 32-bit Arm microprocessor]

They claim that the microprocessor is cheap to build and that it consists of thin-film transistors on a flexible, high-performance plastic substrate rather than rigid silicon.

Fat : It’s just 40,000 transistors implemented in about 60 square millimeters. Just to compare that, for example, the original iPhone’s processor in 2007 is 14,000 times faster. It is therefore not a very powerful microprocessor, but it is intended for applications that really do not need this level of performance.

Intaglio: Its co-author Catherine Ramsdale is senior vice president of technology at PragmatIC Semiconductor. She laid out the vision for how flexible chips like this could be used.

Ramsdale: We’re talking here about putting electronics on the products you buy from Walmart or Tesco every week, which would just help with supply chain management, waste management, providing information on dates of real-time expiration, health care monitoring. It provides a level of computation which is not currently available because it is not economical to do so.

Fat : Yes, to extend the Internet of Things to the “Internet of Everything”.

Intaglio: Despite this enthusiasm, the two admitted the project was far from commercialization.

For one thing, although the microprocessor is built on a flexible plastic substrate, it was tested on a flat, non-collapsible surface. Manos Tentzeris is a professor of flexible electronics at Georgia Tech, who was not involved in the work.

Tentzeris: So, whenever you refer to a flexible processor or flexible device or flexible module, one of the first results you need to show is that flexing does not significantly affect performance.

Intaglio: Biggs and Ramsdale said it can be difficult to perform tests while the chips are bent or bent – and they will look at that in their future work.

Anshel sags, who covers the semiconductor industry for Moor Insights & Strategy, highlighted another issue. He says the chips are currently too large and their power consumption too high to make them viable in terms of cost.

Sagging: I think using it on a milk jug makes sense. But I think you also have to take into account the costs. And unless these can be produced at an extremely low cost, there will simply be no viability for it.

Intaglio: Yet, they all pointed out that silicon chips reached this level of complexity a long time ago – in the ’70s and’ 80s – and had to overcome many similar challenges to get to where they are today.

What about John Biggs from the semiconductor company? He’s here for the long game.

Fat : What I am seeing is that flexible electronics is sort of lagging behind silicon by about three to four decades. So if we see something like the rapid growth we’ve seen in silicon over the past three to four decades, there could be some pretty exciting developments in the field of flexible electronics over the next ten or twenty. years.

Intaglio: So that the Internet of Everything can happen. It may just take a while to get here.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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