April Flowers for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
It’s probably a safe bet that you have never been in a big electronics retailer like Best Buy or Comp USA and seen a sign boasting the percentage of recycled electronic components that a laptop or smart TV uses. This suits the electronics industry, as many of the leading companies make their money selling more and more new components.
A new technology from Oxford University, however, may just change this paradigm forever.
“It is a technology that is going to fundamentally change the way we build computers,” says Dr. Mark Gostock, a technology transfer manager at the University of Oxford’s ISIS Innovation. “And there are going to be a lot of people who make a whole lot of money from the way we do it now who aren’t going to be happy when they hear what we have got.”
“The PCB [printed circuit board] industry in particular has already made a big investment in manufacturing infrastructure and they are not going to want to change,” said Chris Stevens, engineering lecturer and successful academic-entrepreneur.
The team started with the technology behind the Pentagon’s cloaking device and came up with a new technology to replace the solder, pins and wiring from conventional computers with LEGO-like blocks of silicon. The blocks are stuck to a Velcro-like metamaterial board capable of wirelessly transmitting or conducting both data and power. This is science fiction transformed into reality, with wallpaper that can connect the components of your entertainment system and computers designed as wristbands.
“We saw the potential first of this technology because most people have been looking at metamaterials from a physics perspective, in terms of cloaking devices or optics, and other potential applications like this use of radio frequencies were seen to be niche, with little research excitement,” says Stevens in a statement.
Stevens tried to convince Microsoft to use the metamaterial for the new Surface tablet, saying that “you could put your mobile on the screen of the tablet and all the apps on the phone would seamlessly appear on the larger screen.” Microsoft took a pass because the technology is too unproven.
The copper-wire and balsa-wood test beds look more like something created during WWI by British scientists, making it easy to miss the potential of the technology if you are watching the demonstration videos. Watching, it is difficult to imagine this is the future of computing.
However, as you watch the LEDs light up as they are waved over the wire and data from a USB stick is flashed up on a screen with only a simple tap of the stick on the metaboard, the enormous potential becomes apparent.
“Right now we can achieve 3.5 gigabit-per-second data transfer rate and hundreds of watts of power — enough to recharge any number of mobile devices without loss of efficiency — but the circuits have the capacity for increased performance and the limits aren’t really known,” says Stevens.
The team embedded copper coils in a conductive layer of material to form a sealed circuit board.
Stevens says, “You can then produce an individual chip that has no legs, no pins and can in no way be damaged and which is simply stuck — even glued — on to the metaboard.”
The result is that instead of “throwing on the tip PCBs which could last for 25 years if it weren’t for the six-months-to-a-year built-in obsolescence embedded in the product life cycle,” these metamaterial chips can be peeled off and reused several times. For example, it could be moved into a lower-end computer, then again into a smart TV, and perhaps a washing machine at the end of its lifetime.
Stevens admits, however, that although he’s done the theoretical work and is satisfied with his progress, it is going to take some hard work to convince people of the potential of his product until he finishes building a carbon demo model, which depends on finding funding.
“If Samsung funded it, they could do all the hard work of silicon integration (which is what they know about) within a year. If I have to fund it out of academic research grants it could take three to four years.”
Darren Cadman, research coordinator at the Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Centre at Loughborough University, says that Stevens’ work “displays significant potential to alter the current design, manufacture and use of electronic circuits in a wide number of applications.”
“By removing solder it offers a novel solution to the problems of reliability. The removal of the need for cables and wires is obviously a huge benefit with the increasing costs of copper and the multitude of electronic devices found in every home. Additionally the simple and cost-effective manufacture of the circuits means they have an excellent chance of finding widespread adoption and use,” Cadman says.
Cadman agrees with Stevens that further investment, probably corporate in nature, will be necessary to ensure the product is robust enough — in terms of data rates, accuracy of data, range and proximity of devices – for the intended applications.
Warren East, chief executive of Cambridge-based ARM, which designs the architecture used in the chips powering almost every mobile phone in the world, agrees that this technology has enormous potential. East warns, however, “sometimes being truly groundbreaking is just not enough”.
“We have had a number of on-going discussions with Chris about a range of different technologies he has been working on to improve the reliability of packaging materials,” East says, and in particular “the use of such conductive materials”.
“After all, while we can do amazing things with chips now, it doesn’t make much sense making chips smaller and smaller if the connections using wires and pins are actually larger than the chips themselves and also unreliable.”
A lot of ideas in research laboratories appear to be groundbreaking, but the real challenge is to get them from the laboratory to economic production, cautions Cadman. Hundreds of good ideas die at the proof-of-concept stage for every one that makes it to commercial reality. This is because the need to produce chips in quantities of billions reliably and economically is a very high hurdle to jump.
Sometimes, Cadman adds, it is simply inertia that holds an idea back for a time. An example of this is 3D transistors, which have recently launched with a great deal of fanfare although the technology has been around for at least 10 years.
“Similarly, people in the industry should be interested in recycling”, East says, but at the moment “there are the commercial disincentives not to do so”. Silicon companies make their money by supplying chips and “they want to supply more of them. If a quarter were recycled then it would mean less profit.”
The goal of truly flexible electronics, for example where the whole computer is flexible and can be worn like a wristwatch, is only possible if all physical connections can be done away with and everything can be made wireless. East believes that the people who are currently making money will not want to be displaced, which will make it harder to bring this technology to the public.
For Cadman, this technology “is the sort of clever creative technology that Britain is so good at, and serves as an example of the strength of work in electronics design and electronics manufacturing currently going on in the UK.”
Stevens is aware, however, that the success of this technology depends on manufacturers desire to improve recycling, and the cost of the initial manufacturing.
“The problem is that nobody is making anything in the UK anymore. If we had our own research institute just down the road where I could pop in for tea then I believe the road ahead would be different.”
Gostock sees this as a case of Oxford University versus the rest of the world once again. Some of the biggest names in electronics and chemicals from the USA, Korea, and India have been showing interest in the metamaterial technology, so Oxford just might win again.
April Flowers for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online