Future watch: Low-cost, flexible displays will lighten reading matter

Future Watch: Hybrid-material chips

By manufacturing semiconductors using a hybrid of organic and inorganic materials, chipmakers will be able to create cheap and flexible semiconductors that could revolutionise the use and design of computer displays and low-cost storage devices. We should see these chips in about three to five years.

Imagine being able to create your very own newspaper: scores and rankings of the sports teams you like, favourite comic strips, news topics that interest you, even the latest articles from the Test Centre. Appealing, yes; but revolutionary, no. But hold that thought.

Imagine creating your newspaper on a monitor so thin and flexible, you can roll it up like a piece of paper. Now imagine a monitor so light and inexpensive that reading it on the bus or even forgetting it in a taxi cab is no big deal.

That is one example of the next big thing IBM says should roll out of its research facilities in the next three to five years.

In order to understand what IBM is doing, you'll need to freshen up on your chemistry. Currently, transistors for laptop-type displays, smart cards, and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are created using inorganic materials, specifically amorphous silicon.

The problem is that the manufacturing process for this silicon involves both high heat and a vacuum, making transistors not only expensive, but also fragile. The required heat would destroy any flexible material that might be used as a base.

This is where the scientists at IBM come in.

After creating a process that uses both organic and inorganic materials, IBM is now working on a method of creating transistors that match amorphous silicon in conductive speed (technically referred to as mobility), but that can be manufactured in the open air at room temperature.

What this means to the computer industry is that IBM has figured out a way to create very cheap semiconductors that can be used in applications that require large chip areas and mechanical flexibility.

To begin, we should see these applications in displays on mobile devices and in low-cost storage devices.

Displays will be cheap and flexible, opening up the size and shape of future devices. Imagine wearing a mini computer wrapped around your wrist. More important, prices of portable devices can be dramatically cut when the cost of the display becomes negligible.

Next, look for RFID tags and smart cards to become as prevalent as the low-tech sticker.

Self-checking grocery supermarkets, completely automated inventory control, and cashless transactions virtually anywhere are just a few of the possibilities we might see some day. Though this may smack of 1950s idealism, it may come sooner than you think.

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