Prototype Plastic Processor Developed

A European start-up company is on its way to developing a microprocessor manufacturing technique that uses a flexible plastic material for the motherboard instead of the industry-standard silicon. A prototype plastic processor from Plastic Logic Ltd. is expected by next summer.

Cambridge, U.K.-based Plastic Logic, which has patented a new type of plastic circuit, has received 1.75 million pounds (US$2.48 million) in start-up funding from Amadeus Capital Partners.

Plastic Logic invented the method of printing plastic onto a polymer substrate as a way to replace silicon chips for the transistors used in semiconductors, Amadeus said in a statement released Monday. Cambridge Research, Innovation, and Dow Ventures are also investing in Plastic Logic, the company said.

Unlike silicon-based processors that are fabricated on brittle, flat wafers, Plastic Logic's fabrication process prints the chips on rolls of film that can be applied to a variety of surfaces, such as clothing.

Statements on the company's Web site show the Plastic Logic technology headed for relatively small-duty processing tasks, which include intelligent supermarket pricing labels.

According to representatives for Amadeus, the plastic chips are cheaper to produce than silicon chips.

But some industry analysts are skeptical, saying that silicon is not an expensive material and not in short supply.

"[Silicon] is basically highly refined sand," explained Nathan Brookwood, an analyst for Saratogo, Calif.-based Insight 64.

Brookwood said that while some silicon-based microprocessors sell for as much as $5,000, the vast majority of chips are very small silicon processors that cost less than a dollar.

Company's that manufacture "talking" greeting cards that utilize tiny battery-powered chips inside them incur costs of only 25 cents per chip, according to Brookwood. And the raw silicon component of those same chips accounts for no more than pennies on the total cost, he said.

Brookwood also warned that global investments in silicon processor fabrication plants, which he said closes in on $100 billion, would have a company such as Plastic Logic essentially swimming upstream in an industry fixed in silicon.

Echoing this downbeat view, officials for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel said they believe that the technology, while of interest to its scientists, is destined for "the extreme low end" of the processor market. Consequently, Intel has no plans to pursue plastic as an alternative to silicon for any of its processor categories, the officials said.

According to Amadeus, Plastic Logic was founded by two polymer electronics researchers, Professor Richard Friend, of Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University and co-founder of Cambridge Display Technology, and Dr. Henning Sirringhaus, a lecturer at Cavendish Laboratory.

London-based Amadeus has appointed Stuart Evans -- formerly of IBM Corp. and consulting company McKinsey & Co. -- as chief executive officer of Plastic Logic and is also recruiting other people for management positions, Amadeus said.

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