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Chipmaker Borrows Newspaper Technology

Rolltronics hopes to cut cost of chip production by using rolls of silicon a quarter mile long.

InformationWeek Staff

January 23, 2002

2 Min Read

Talk about technology with legs. Roll-to-roll printing revolutionized the newspaper industry more than a century ago, and now Rolltronics Corp. wants to turn chip fabrication on its ear using a roll-to-roll system. The Menlo Park, Calif., company has partnered with Iowa Thin Film Technologies to create flexible sheets of silicon transistors, which can dramatically reduce the cost and waste involved in chip production, says Glenn Sanders, Rolltronics' VP of business development and IT. The spools are about 12 inches wide, which is the width of the largest silicon wafers, and a quarter mile long.

Rolltronics' concept took shape in 1998, when co-founders James Sheats and Michael Sauvante were employed by Hewlett-Packard. Sheats was working on HP's E-inclusion project, focused on bridging the digital divide with affordable technology. He saw roll-to-roll processing as one way to bring prices down--and the potential of that idea prompted Sheats and Sauvante to leave HP and start their own company.

While other companies such as Bell Labs and IBM have also developed flexible transistors, Sanders says there's a significant distinction. Rolltronics uses silicon, while other companies use plastic. "We decided to focus on silicon from the very beginning, because plastic will never compare when it comes to switching speed and how much current it can handle."

While plastic carbon-based material may react better to the human body when used as chip implants, there are some benefits to working with silicon for flexible transistors, says Gartner analyst Jim Walker. Silicon is a known entity that's been in production for about 30 years, and engineers understand how to design with it, he says. "Some of the plastic carbon-based transistors are quite new from the standpoint of development and cost," he says. "From a raw-material perspective, there are some unknowns, like how moisture-resistant they are."

Within the next six months, Rolltronics hopes to finish prototypes that can be integrated into products. One possibility Sanders envisions is a "really smart" smart card--such as a bankcard that could display your account balance in real time. He also anticipates powerful, lightweight reading devices, which could be an eighth of an inch thick, with resolution that matches a laser printer and low power requirements that let it run on a thin-film battery for weeks or months. Potentially, the roll-to-roll process originally used for newspapers could help change the way we read newspapers. "It's ironic," Sanders says, "but I think Gutenberg would approve."

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