Next generation of plastic computers may be one step closer to reality

Previously, the massive quantity of energy needed to read stored information has stopped researchers from developing computers, cell phones and other devices that use flexible plastic instead of silicon chips.

Now, University of Iowa researchers and their colleagues at New York University believe they have come up with a solution to this problem. Their findings are described in greater detail in the journal Nature Communications.

According to the researchers, storing information is most efficiently done utilizing magnetism, which guarantees that the data will endure for years without any extra power.


“So a critical issue is how to convert information from one type to another,” posits Michael Flatté, professor of physics and astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the UI Optical Science and Technology Center.

Dan Ralph, of the Cornell Center for Materials Research, writes that silicon is utilized in computer because it is easier, and therefore less expensive, to create complex circuit out of silicon than for any other material.

“Although it does not cost a lot of energy to convert one to the other in ordinary, silicon-chip-based computers, the energy cost is very high for flexible, plastic computing devices that are hoped to be used for inexpensive ‘throwaway’ information processors,” Flatté adds. ”Here we show an efficient means of converting information encoded in magnetic storage to light in a flexible plastic device.”

The researchers successfully performed information transduction between a magnet and an organic light-emitting diode at room temperature and without electrical current flow between the magnet and the organic device.

“The magnetic fields from the magnetic storage device directly modify the light emission from the device. This could help solve problems of storage and communication for new types of inexpensive, low-power computers based on conducting plastics,” explains Markus Wohlgenannt of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Optical Science and Technology Center.

In 2011, MIT Technology Review wrote about the first plastic computer processor. According to the article’s author, Tom Simonite, the achievement demonstrated that “computing doesn’t have to rely on inflexible silicon.” Citing Jan Genoe at the IMEC nanotechnology center in Leuven, Belgium, Simonite notes that the plastic processors are likely to first emerge in locations where silicon is blocked by its cost or inflexibility.

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