Could a flexible processor stuck on your produce track the freshness of your cantaloupe? That’s the idea behind the latest processor from UK computer chip designer Arm, which says such a device could be manufactured 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 ability to collect, process and transmit data across the internet – something that could be as convenient for retailers as it is concerning for privacy advocates.
In recent decades, processors have reduced in size and price to the point that they are now commonly used in everything from televisions to washing machines and watches. But almost all chips manufactured today are rigid devices created on silicon wafers in highly specialised and costly factories where dozens of complex chemical and mechanical processes take up to eight weeks from start to finish. Now, Arm has developed a 32-bit processor called PlasticARM with circuits and components that are printed onto a plastic substrate, just as a printer deposits ink on paper.
James Myers at Arm says the processor can run a variety of programs, although it currently uses read-only memory so is only able to execute the code it was built with. Future versions will use fully programmable and flexible memory.
“It won’t be fast, it won’t be energy efficient, but if I’m going to put it on a lettuce to track shelf life, that’s the idea,” he says. “We’re still looking for the applications, just like the original processor guys in the 1970s. Is this about smart packaging? Is it going to be gas sensors that can tell you whether something is safe to eat or not? It could be wearable health patches, that’s a fun project we’re looking at.”
Flexible chips have been created before, but Arm’s device is the most powerful yet demonstrated. It has 56,340 components packed into less than 60 square millimetres. This gives it around 12 times more components 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 manufactured by third parties. The company claims that 160 billion chips have been manufactured using its technology, but if the Internet of Things grows to include everyday household objects, there could be a market for trillions of flexible computer chips.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03625-w
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