Tech Wave 3: Plastic Electronics

Next to innovative plastics, silicon could soon look clunky and dated

It may be Hollywood's most famous one-word line: "Plastics." Since Dustin Hoffman's character ignored that career advice in the 1967 hit The Graduate, plastics have become the most prevalent material in offices and homes. And now, plastics are set to pull off a sequel -- in electronics. Don't look for plastic chips to be used for heavy-duty computing chores anytime soon, but they could rival silicon sometime in the 2010s.

Until then, researchers worldwide see major new opportunities for information technology in this cheap and pliable alternative to silicon. Their targets range from wall-size television displays to ultra-tiny transistors. That sweeping potential has captivated some heavyweight companies in computers and consumer electronics.

Today, the movement is just getting in gear. An innovative plastic screen was unveiled this year on a digital camera from Eastman Kodak (EK ) Co., which in 1979 discovered the first organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Unlike the liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) in cell phones and laptops, plastic OLEDs don't break when dropped. And while LCDs require a separate light source, OLEDs generate their own light, so they save energy, and "colors are more vibrant," says James J. O'Brien, Dow Chemical (DOW ) Co.'s technical director for displays.

Dow has teamed up with Motorola (MOT ) Inc. and Xerox Corp. to develop polymer inks and printing methods that could spew out plastic circuitry like so much newspaper. That might one day lead to video wallpaper studded with millions of light-emitting specks of plastic. So walls could turn into TV sets or change color to match the season. DuPont (DD ) Co. has similar ambitions and is working with Universal Display (PANL ), Sarnoff, and Lucent Technologies (LU ). "Wall-size displays are going to happen -- perhaps within five years," says Ananth Dodabalapur, an electrical engineer at the University of Texas.

Portable computers with OLED screens from Sony (SNE ) Corp., Sanyo Electric (SANYY ) Inc., and others should show up in stores next year. And in May, Toshiba Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial (MC ) Corp. unveiled 17-inch monitors with screens printed by squirting polymer inks from special ink-jet printers.

Inkjet systems and other printing techniques are now heading down the path blazed by silicon chipmaking equipment -- producing ever-smaller plastic circuit lines and transistors. How tiny can they get? Arthur J. Epstein, head of Ohio State University's Center for Materials Research, says conducting plastics may eventually turn individual electrons into transistors. The direction of an electron's spin, which can be controlled magnetically, would determine whether it's on or off -- or storing a one or a zero. As with polymer displays, tiny circuits of this type could be printed by special inkjets.

Not everyone buys into this idea. Greg E. Blonder, former head of materials research at the old AT&T Bell Laboratories and now a venture capitalist at Morgenthaler Ventures, is betting on molecular-size transistors such as the benzene-and-hydrogen molecule concocted last year by Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. "Nature computes with molecules," he explains. Either way, commercial versions of ultra-small plastic chips may be a decade down the road.

On the other hand, plastic chips seem just the ticket for jobs that don't require superfast processing, such as "smart" tags on manufactured items. These chips could also be the guts of "ubiquitous computing" -- giving virtually everything in homes and offices a wireless link to a local network or the Web. Then milk containers could tell the refrigerator when they are running low, so the fridge could post a note on its OLED screen. No wonder chipmakers such as Infineon, IBM, and Philips are more than just nostalgic about The Graduate.

By Otis Port

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