Printing Cheap Chips

The San Francisco based Company Kovio has recently announced the development of a new process for printing transistors for memory and logic chips, as well as analog devices for radio transmitters. Since the technology uses commercial printing equipment such as inkjet printers, it may prove to be a cheap and easy way to produce high-performance microchips. The first products to be released will likely be disposable smart cards for public transportation, but eventually this technique is expected to have a wide range of applications, including wall-sized displays.
 Professor Vivek Subramanian (Credit: University of California, Berkeley)
Professor Vivek Subramanian
(Credit: University of
California, Berkeley)

By replacing photolithography methods with printing techniques and by producing larger transistors than in conventional chip making methods, a printed chip might have thousands of transistors rather than hundreds of millions of transistors (the average on today’s advanced processors). While they can’t compete with the microchips used in computing or consumer electronics, the low production costs of printed electronics means they can be used in a wide range of everyday objects, as well as in large displays covering an entire wall.

Although Kovio is not the only company developing ultra cheap alternatives to conventional microchips, they set themselves aside by using inorganic semi conducting materials, such as silicon, rather than organic materials such as conducting polymers. The cost is a bit higher, but the performance of inorganic transistors is 100 to 1,000 times better than that of organic transistors, according to Vivek Subramanian. Subramanian works on printed organic electronics at the University of California, Berkeley and is a technical advisor to Kovio. Using the special processing technique developed by Kovio, it is possible to produce radio devices that switch at speeds fast enough to meet current radio frequency identification (RFID) standards.

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RFID chip
RFID chip

The Kovio Company has developed a variety of inks, including nanocrystalline metals used for electrodes and connections between devices, doped silicon semiconductors, and insulating materials. This enables them to print memory and energy-efficient CMOS logic devices as well as analog circuitry for radios to make RFID tags that cost less than a nickel. Within five years, the cost for some applications could drop to just 1 cent a piece, allowing stores to replace barcodes with RFID tags that can make tracking inventory even easier. This technology may even allow consumers to read the tags with their cell phones to confirm that a product compiles with dietary restrictions or to keep a tally of the cost of items in their basket.

Kovio’s process was originally based on research by Joseph Jacobson, a Professor at MIT’s Media Lab. He co-founded Kovio in 2001 and the company almost immediately went into stealth mode as it developed the technology for commercial applications. The technology could be perfect for replacing magnetic stripe cards with faster, more reliable smart cards.

In 2006, TFOT covered HP’s Memory Spot chip and Nokia’s wireless Wibree technology. More recently, TFOT covered Hitachi’s release of the world’s smallest and thinnest RFID chip.

More information about Kovio’s printable chips can be found on the company’s website.