Imagine an IMAX-sized TV screen for your living-room that you could roll-up and down; wireless electronic wallpaper that changes colour, form and design with your mood; electronic newspapers that look and feel like real paper, thereby saving millions of trees from daily slaughter.
Xerox Canada claims these are just some tantalizing possibilities that can materialize from the company's research into plastic organic electronics (POE).
"This is a fundamental technology that is so far out and hard to understand, but will significantly change the way we use and interact with technologies," says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in Ontario. "We do need to keep our eyes on this one."
POE uses specialized, nanotechnology-based materials and printing processes to create an 'ink' that can be used with print-heads to print the patterns needed for electronic circuits on plastic instead of etching them in silicon.
From this seemingly arcane research will spring a solution to a multitude of industry, consumer and environmental issues, once POE technology comes to fruition.
On the industry front, silicon transistor production is an enormously expensive, wasteful and inefficient process, explains Hadi Mahabadi, vice president of the Xerox Canada Research Centre (XRCC).
Silicon circuit production requires billions of dollars to set up and operate the ultra-clean room environments, high-temperature vacuum systems and complex photo-lithographic processes needed to transform the silicon oxide in sand into the circuits used in an array of consumer devices.
The process itself is wasteful, requiring more silicon than is actually used, since the patterns are etched out of block of material. And the finished silicon circuit needs to be mounted on glass, which makes the end-product rigid, fragile and limited in size.
If you could print circuits with a jet printer in a not-so-clean environment, you could get them printed on plastic to create flexible drivers, Mahabadi says. This, he said, could be done at a local print shop, instead of at a billion-dollar facility in southeast Asia.
The XRCC is very close to bringing POE technology to market, Mahabadi said. The centre has already generated a working four-inch square prototype with a mini-transistor that works temporarily, and is working to extend the technology's shelf-life.
"Within three to five years, we will probably see POE used in big signs in shops and hotels," the Xerox exec predicts. "And maybe in seven to eight years, we will see roll-up TVs. Wallpaper changing patterns will take more time, and roll-up laptops are possibilities in a longer time-frame."
Xerox has a particularly keen interest in electronic paper, which would use real paper with a POE backing and could be re-used and recycled with different content.
"We are thinking of paper that looks and feels normal but the information is digital," Mahabadi said.
Although POE may look like a promising technology to reduce paper use, Mahabadi warns predictions made a generation ago about the paperless office came to nought, as the availability of information combined with ubiquitous computers and printers has had the opposite effect.