Fantastic New Plastic Could Make Silicon Chips Obsolete and Lead to a Dazzling Future; Welsh Research Centres to Be at Cutting Edge of New Technology
Byline: Robin Turner
WALES could be at the centre of a new industrial revolution using "plastic electronics" for a science fiction-like future with intelligent clothing and internet displays beamed directly to our eyes.
For decades the silicon chip was the beating heart of our electronic lives, but now a cheaper, more flexible and durable plastic chip is taking over.
Experts believe the global market for plastic electronics could exceed pounds 300bn in under 20 years.
Swansea University's Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating has been confirmed as part of the plastic electronics revolution by named as a UK Centre of Excellence for the fast moving discipline.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) named Swansea as one of a number of UK centres for plastic electronics research as part of its drive to capitalise on the potential vast number of high-value jobs and economic growth the sector promises.
Current electronics use microchips - circuits and wiring "diagrams" miniaturised to the point that millions of circuits are contained in a one-inch square chip etched onto refined silicon at very high temperatures.
Plastic electronics, on the other hand, uses sheets of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic - the flexible but tough material used in the production of plastic bottles.
Circuits are then printed on these sheets using ink-jet printers or techniques much like those used to print magazines and newspapers - resulting in a process that is cheap, easy to do and faster to produce.
And the circuits can be printed on virtually any surface so in the near future, breakfast cereal boxes could contain YouTube-like announcements and films.
Clothes could contain circuits that monitor our health and warn us if we appear to be on the verge of a heart attack or some other life-threatening problem.
Hospital bracelets could be updated automatically every time a medical file is updated and, on the battlefield, guns could "talk" to soldiers, relaying enemy positions and asking to be reloaded.
Among the new products already being worked on for the plastic chip era is e-paper, which looks like conventional newsprint or the print seen in books but which can be updated by touching an imprinted button.
And computer screens which can be enlarged or reduced and used to provide up-to-date information using the merest flick of the finger, as seen in the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi movie Minority Report, are also being worked on by Windows. …