You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Silicon Valley’ should change its name to ‘Polymer Planet’. The truth is, not much of the innovation coming out of the technology heartland of California these days has anything to do with silicon.
Internet and software companies dominate, and those that still manufacture ‘hardware’ have outsourced almost everything to experts in smart plastics.
In the same way that Hollywood abandoned celluloid in favor of digital media, the highest of high-tech products are now based on plastic.
World-wide, the plastic electronics industry is topping US$ 30 billion, and chip fabrication plants which used to depend on expensive silicon wafer processes now use the ‘spray and grow’ approach – spray components on in layers like ink, and grow organic polymers from nano-scale base materials into smart products.
The benefits of plastic electronics are obvious: They can be built up piecemeal and molded to almost any shape; they can be ‘printed’ on rolls by repeating a pattern over and over again; and they can bend.
Such is the precision with which nano-droplets of circuitry ‘ink’ can be positioned, there is virtually no wastage. Not only are plastic circuits and chips cheaper to manufacture, they use less power when running – and generate less heat.
The flexibility of components and final products, from displays and memory to cellphones, means that innovative new shapes, gadgets and applications are no longer constrained by silicon’s fragile rigidity.
We’re all familiar with solar-powered clothing and tents, wrist-watch phones and roll-up HDTVs. As plastic’s popularity grows, what will be next?