Johannes Gutenberg Meets Andy Grove: Cheap, Printable Electronics Arrive

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Johannes Gutenberg Meets Andy Grove: Cheap, Printable Electronics Arrive

It may seem as though innovations in electronics touch every facet of your life, from voice-activated automotive accessories, to smart thermostats, to hotel room key cards.  But looking ahead to newly developing printable electronics, it's safe to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

There are thousands of applications that haven't even been considered yet, simply because using a silicon-based electronic device is cost-prohibitive — not to mention overkill.  Think of it this way:  Who would buy a 747 jet when all you wanted to do was fly a kite? 

More specifically, would you pay 50 cents extra for a cup of yogurt because it could be "read" by your refrigerator, and added to a list on a video screen highlighting every item inside, with expiration dates?  At 50 cents, few, if any of us, would.  But, how about paying one cent, or half a cent, for this capability?  That's where things are going:  ultra-cheap disposable printed electronics for disposable products.

These inexpensive printed sensors, transistors, and memory devices aren't as speedy or as high-capacity as silicon-based devices, but for certain applications, they have more than enough horsepower.  Such disposable electronic devices could monitor and store information about the temperature of drugs, or the safety of food, during shipment.

One group that has been developing a suite of materials for making printed electronics, including sensors and transistors, is the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).  For much of their history, the excitement around printable electronics has centered around the potential to replace silicon electronics in complex devices, such as display screens, so that they can roll up.  For these types of applications, researchers at PARC are working to match silicon's performance in materials that are just as fast and efficient, while being flexible and inexpensive.

A company named Thin Film is currently working with PARC to make high-capacity printed memory devices that incorporate the research center's printable transistors.  A recent article in MIT Technology Review1 revealed that the company's 20-bit printable memory devices will start appearing in toys in early 2011.

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Products integrating these postage-stamp-sized memory devices will include playing cards paired with online games.  Kids will use the cards to transfer their playing history between a PC and a hand-held device.  For this kind of application in a toy or a game, only a small amount of memory is required, and using silicon-based memory such as flash is impossibly expensive...

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