Chips Made of Plastic? ARM Seeks To Replace Silicon Chips To Create Truly Flexible Electronics

Plastic chips aren't meant to replace Silicon-based processors right now, but they are meant for the Internet of everything.

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When you think of flexible electronics now, you’re usually thinking of foldable smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, etc. But what if you had to put a chip right into a piece of paper? Or on medical bandages? The silicon-based chips we used right now are brittle, and they can’t be folded or stretched the way these items require. That’s a problem chip design firm ARM is looking to solve with its new chips that use plastic instead of silicon. The British firm, which is behind pretty much every mobile processor today, is looking at this for a future where there’s a micro-controller in pretty much everything.

The company published a paper in scientific journal Nature, explaining how it achieved this feat. This is not the first time we’ve heard about the concept of flexible chips — and it is still a concept — but ARM says its designs have at least 12 times more logic gates (18000 total) than previous chips. The new chip, called PlasticARM uses a 32-bit Cortex-M0 CPU, 456 bytes of ROM and 128 bytes of RAM. Yes, that’s the simplest chip ARM produces, but proof of concept chips are often like this.

The PlasticARM chip isn’t really meant to run anything at this point, it just aims to prove that this future is indeed possible. It can only run three test programs that are hardwired into its circuits right now, but ARM says it will allow others to install new code in future versions. For reference, the company produces processor architectures, which are then customized by other firms to create chips like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, Apple’s Bionic and Samsung’s Mongoose chips. 

Make no mistake, this is a “system on chip”, or SoCs as they’re usually known. Which means it’s an entire computer on one chip. That’s how mobile chips function today, from the Snapdragons of Qualcomm, to Apple’s powerfully named Bionics and M1s. Such designs save space, improve power efficiency and still deliver more power than some spaceships we’ve sent to space in the past. Heck, Snapdragon Wear can mean a chip that’s built into the watch strap instead of a thick dial.

ARM is envisioning chips like the PlasticARM to one day power calculations humankind will do on food packaging, wearable patches and even a bottle of perfume. It’s truly for a future that we usually see in science fiction movies. Imagine if the Zomato rider was late, and the food packaging realized that the food had been spoiled by the time the rider reached his destination. Or perhaps a bandage with a flexible microprocessor that allows doctors to monitor patients remotely. Those are things PlasticARM is meant for.

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