Perhaps the best-kept secret in the electronics industry at the moment is the upcoming deadline for non-European companies to join the biggest polymer electronics R&D program ever. Called PolyApply, the project is due to shut out applicants from North America and Asia as of April 24.
Quietly organized by leading electronics companies and research institutes in Europe, the plastics project is open, in principle, to non-European companies that have "interest, ideas and technologies to drive polymer electronics in real-life applications," said Karlheinz Bock, head of the polytronic-systems department at the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich, Germany. However, outsiders are being asked to make a case "in writing" for why they want to join and what they hope to contribute, Bock added. Now, they have less than two months to start pitching.
Angling to get the project selected as a part of the Sixth European Union Framework Program for Research & Technological Development (FP6), PolyApply proponents are pushing recent polymer advances into products that include organic displays, RF tags, ICs, solar cells, memories, sensors and actuators. Some see the project as fertile ground for forging partnerships within and outside the electronics industry perhaps with printing companies, for example. Others see PolyApply growing into a forum that engenders basic standards such as radio frequencies for applying polymer electronics to products like RF identification tags.
Although performance limitations are likely to keep polymers from ever replacing CMOS-based silicon, plastic chips will "determine the future in creating 'ambient intelligence' " in devices that are lightweight, low-cost, flexible and, ultimately, embedded everywhere, said Hans Hofstraat, vice president of Philips Research and head of the Dutch company's polymers and organic chemistry group.
The formation of PolyApply hints at a groundswell of European interest in polymer electronics. If chosen as a project for the EU's FP6, tasked to strengthen the competitiveness of the European economy, PolyApply could well generate major incentives for researchers and scientists working in Europe's tight-knit polymer electronics community. The EU has allocated 17.5 billion euros (roughly $19 billion) for FP6, covering a four-year period (2003-'06).
Hashing out 'scenarios'
As a prelude to PolyApply, a dozen European organizations and companies collaborated for six months last year in a project called PolyScene. Besides Fraunhofer and Philips, participants included the IMEC research consortium, Infineon, Leti, Siemens, STMicroelectronics and Thomson. Motorola also took part through its Advanced Technology Center in Germany.
Bock described PolyScene as a pre-competitive "networking" activity to hash out "convincing application scenarios for polymer electronics." The group is compiling a report on the PolyScene work, but it's unclear whether it will be made public. "It's up to PolyScene members to decide," said Bock.
Indeed, despite the appearance of openness in the PolyApply project, participants in PolyScene seem to have largely identified their missing technology pieces and must-have partners. But until the final roster of PolyApply companies is announced, mum's the word.
PolyApply's mission is to enable product applications for plastic circuits over the next 10 years. Although predictions vary among industry experts, Philips' Hofstraat sees polymer electronics going into flexible displays in volume within three years, with applications in labels and tags moving into high-volume production five years out. Commercial applications in memories, solar cells and sensors will take longer, he said.
Infineon's plastic test chip could theoretically be integrated on potato chip bag.
Even as European researchers expand the applications possibilities for plastic chips, individual corporations are sharpening the focus and narrowing the goals of specific polymer developments in hopes of getting products to the market sooner.
Infineon Technologies AG, for one, has homed in on "ultralow-cost electronics for RF ID tags," said Guenter Schmid, who heads the company's polymer electronics project. Describing his team's work as "system-level circuit development," Schmid explained that Infineon is looking toward polymer electronics as the company's key to expanding its portfolio of secure mobile solutions and to addressing the low-cost end of the market.
Infineon has developed plastic chips based on a fully substrate-independent technology, which makes it possible to integrate plastic electronic circuits in commercially available packaging films, such as the material in a potato chip bag. In a technical paper presented at the recent International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Infineon described the development of circuit models and rapid circuit designs using polymer electronics.
Fraunhofer, on the other hand, has made progress in process technologies for use in developing electronics on flexible substrates. The institute recently opened a reel-to-reel manufacturing center that offers the different coating, patterning and assembly methods necessary to produce polymer electronics or ultrathin ICs. Citing the key objectives of Fraunhofer's polytronic-systems department as "development of flexible electronics and producing them on a flexible substrate," Bock said he expects the reel-to-reel manufacturing center to encourage small to medium-size companies to try different new materials for future products.
Philips Research, meanwhile, has invested its R&D efforts on displays, applying polymer to organic light-emitting diodes and to thin-film transistors as pixel drivers in active-matrix LCDs. Moving beyond displays, the company has also targeted polymer-based labels and tags, memory devices and even sensors, according to Hofstraat. The goal, he said, is to "build a platform" for polymer electronics technologies, on which different Philips divisions can develop a "wealth of applications."
Banking on partners
But even a behemoth like Philips is not eager to do everything in-house these days. "We need partners who make equipment to process good materials and control their structures," said Hofstraat. Through the partnerships likely to arise from a project like PolyApply, "We could come to an agreement for standardization on some basic properties of polymer devices, before applying them to such high-volume applications as RF IDs," he added.
Since the discovery of conducting organic crystals and polymers nearly two decades ago, plastic chips have come a long way. Polymer is no longer applied just as a new material to form a homogeneous thin film on a glass or plastic substrate for displays. It is now used in "pure electronics applications," said Hofstraat, "by using polymer transistors to drive displays, and replace all functions of IC silicon."
Wanted: polymer CMOS
The physical properties of polymers are still limited compared with those of crystalline silicon, because polymers' charge carriers are comparatively immobile, and because polymer lacks integration density and clock frequency. Polymer ICs today, for example, are capable of only P-type transistors, whereas the basic building blocks of CMOS circuits are both P-type and N-type transistors. Moreover, the transport of electrons in negative-charge carriers is said to be still unstable in polymers.
At the same time, polymer-based CMOS technology is "one of the development targets," acknowledged Fraunhofer's Bock. If polymer CMOS is realized, "It would be much easier to design circuits and you can simply use all the CMOS libraries available." Infineon's Schmid, while declining to specify a time frame, concurred with an enthusiastic nod. "The day for polymer CMOS may come," he said.