Predictions 2016: flexible chip tech gets real – Imec

Determining what will be needed in five years’ time is a major challenge, writes Paul Heremans, technology director large-area electronics at the Imec research centre in Belgium

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Our task as a research center is to offer our partners technical solutions for their future applications, two to three product generations ahead in time. But when it comes to flexible electronics, the industry does not follow predetermined roadmaps that we can use to base our research on.

Therefore, the big challenge that faces us every year is to accurately assess what our partners will need in five years’ time.

One of the technologies that we are pretty sure will be a winner, is an improved ‘haptic’ user interface for displays. Touchscreens have become standard these days, but they don’t give users any touch feedback; the screen simply feels the same wherever you touch it.

But with haptic feedback, you can e.g. make users actually feel that they have pressed a key. One way of doing this is with a large number of ultrasonic sound sources embedded in the surface of the display – which will be a really nice application for our flexible large-area technology.

For a number of years now, we have been working on flexible chips. We have managed to produce electronic circuits and applications using the same technology developed to enable flexible displays. There is a sizable interest from the industry for this kind of chips, but what we need to do now in 2016 is make sure that they are ready to be mass-produced, for example on the infrastructure that is also used to manufacture displays.

Another important part of our R&D involves producing comfortable wearable electronics. We are working on applications that are incorporated into clothing, as well as on electronics worn on the skin.

In 2015 we succeeded in producing a T-shirt with a built-in LED display that is not only flexible, but that also stretches. These displays are still low-resolution, comparable to digital signage applications. But if there is sufficient demand, we will start developing a higher-resolution technology.

We also made progress with our comfortable health patches. The next generation will consist of a disposable patch with the electrodes that contact the skin, and a small reusable module in the form of a card that is inserted into the disposable patch and that contains a.o. the readout electronics.

In 2016, we’ll research how we can replace the vulnerable connectors to the readout electronics with a contactless design using our NFC (near-field communication) technology.

A large part of our efforts in 2015 was in the area of display technology. A programme on flexible display technology, which started three years ago, focues on technologies such as the patterning of very small OLED pixels to produce high-resolution displays. We are also designing energy-efficient, high-quality pixel drivers, for which our partners show great interest.

We also mix and match technologies with the other areas of research. For example, we are developing infrared photo detectors to complement silicon image sensors. By combining these two types of image sensors, we plan to produce hyperspectral cameras with particularly broad-spectrum coverage.

We also look into using thin-film transistors derived from our display transistors as switches in the CMOS backend.

Another fruitful example of a cross-domain development is with healthcare technology: by combining our flexible electronics with low-voltage sensors that measure health parameters, we can create some particularly useful health applications.

Reversely, the CMOS engineers involved with resistive RAM, which also uses on oxides for the active layers, look how to apply these in flexible oxide electronics, and maybe even in future energy-efficient displays.

Such R&D that crosses the boundaries of different fields will keep on growing in importance.

 

 

 


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