Radu Sporea, University of Surrey – Sci-Fi Technology
Star Trek gave us the “communicator” and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey showed the “newspad” in action.
The technology of science fiction is in our hands today, as smartphones and tablets. But interactive, flexible newspapers as seen in Minority Report aren’t, despite their lightweight appeal and supposed low-cost fabrication. Here are a couple of reasons why.
First, the electronic materials which we use for conventional gadgets are not very bendy. We have to either change the fabrication process, which takes time, or use new materials. Very few of these new contenders come close to the electrical properties of the silicon we use today, and they would make impractically slow electronics.
Second, we’d like to make flexible electronics the way we print newspapers and magazines, in a low-cost, high speed procedure, but this inevitably means that some patterning variations will occur. No two devices are quite alike, and getting consistent performance (one which you can sell to paying customers) is a challenge. The key is the design of a component called the transistor, the electronic switch which is the basic building-block of electronic circuits.
My colleagues and I have been developing the Source-Gated Transistor, a structure which is energy efficient and can be made side by side with regular transistors. It’s simple to make, yet ensures repeatable performance despite patterning errors.
The appeal of flexible electronics goes beyond bendy consumer electronics. Once you can make electronics cheaply and reliably on thin sheets of plastic, you can create things that were rather impractical before: unobtrusive smart plasters for health monitoring, sensors that can be embedded in buildings to monitor their condition, wireless shopping labels to allow instant checkout, and quite a few others which we’ve not thought of yet… or maybe we have, in science fiction.