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This ‘flexible’ processor is made out of plastic instead of silicon

The processors of the future might not be made with silicon as they have been for nearly 50 years. New research headed by ARM and PragmatIC has produced a flexible processor made out of plastic. The PlasticARM processor provides a look at the future, where microprocessors can show up in everything from clothes to milk jugs.

Researchers published their findings in Nature, unveiling the world’s “most complex flexible integrated circuit built with metal-oxide TFTs.” TFTs, or thin-film transistors, enable processors to be built on flexible surfaces. Over silicon, building on plastic would allow chip makers to create chips more cheaply and apply them in more unique ways.

The design of the PlasticARM processor.

The researchers point out bottles, food packages, garments, wearable patches, and bandages as only a few applications of a flexible processor. In the future, smart milk jugs could let you know when your milk has soured or you could monitor your vitals through a wearable patch. A key part of this innovation, according to researchers, is cost. Plastic manufacturing would make chips a viable addition to everyday objects.

As for the PlasticARM processor itself, it’s a 32-bit microprocessor that’s based on ARM’s Cortex-M0+ processor, and it supports the ARMv6-M architecture. This instruction set already has a toolchain for software development, so developers could design programs for the processor the researchers built. According to the paper, the PlasticARM system on a chip (SoC) is “capable of running programs from its internal memory.”

The design (pictured above) is comprised of a 32-bit processor, over 18,000 logic gates, memory, and a controller. Researchers say that future iterations could include up to 100,000 logic gates before power consumption becomes an issue.

The paper is quick to point out that this development isn’t intended to replace silicon. According to the paper “silicon will maintain advantages in terms of performance, density and power efficiency.” TFTs simply enable wider adoption of processors in “novel form factors and at cost points unachievable with silicon, thereby vastly expanding the range of potential applications.”

PlasticARM could pioneer a new “internet of everything,” where more than a trillion objects will be able to take advantage of a dedicated processor. As Intel’s 4-bit 4004 CPU did almost 50 years ago, PlasticARM could begin a new era of innovation in computing.

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