Like anybody who designs laptop chips for a dwelling, James Myers is, at his core, a silicon man. “Silicon is sensible,” he says. Sensible as a result of it’s a pure semiconductor—in a position to each conduct electrical energy and act as an insulator, relying on the situations—and since it may be engineered at small scale. Sensible as a result of it’s the second-most-common ingredient on Earth, in all probability clinging to the soles of your toes proper now, and simply produced by heating sand. These attributes have made it the bedrock of nearly each know-how we use right now. Individuals like Myers, an engineer on the British semiconductor agency Arm, principally spend their time interested by pack extra silicon into much less house—an exponential march from 1000’s of transistors per chip within the 1970s to billions right now. With Moore’s legislation, we’re, as Myers places it, “swimming in silicon.”

For the previous few years, nevertheless, Myers has been wanting past silicon to different supplies, like plastic. Meaning beginning once more from the start. A couple of years in the past, his workforce started designing plastic chips that contained dozens of transistors, then a whole bunch, and now, as reported in Nature on Wednesday, tens of 1000’s. The 32-bit microprocessor incorporates 18,000 logic gates—{the electrical} switches you get from combining transistors—and the essential lobes of a pc mind: processor, reminiscence, controller, inputs and outputs, and many others. As for what it may do? Assume desktop from the early 1980s.

Why flip again the technological clock? As a result of trendy silicon chips are brittle, rigid wafers of electronics. Below stress, they crunch. And whereas silicon is reasonable, and getting cheaper, there are some use circumstances the place it could by no means be low cost sufficient. Think about a pc chip positioned inside a milk carton, changing a printed expiration date with a sensor that detects chemical indicators of spoilage. Helpful? Sorta! But it surely’s solely price including to billions of cartons of milk if the fee is minimal. One software Arm is testing is a chest-mounted chip that screens a affected person for arrhythmia—an inconsistent, lilting coronary heart beat—and is supposed to be discarded after just a few hours. For that, you need a pc that’s low cost however, much more importantly, one which bends. “It wants to maneuver with you and never pop off,” Myers says.

Quite a lot of supplies might theoretically meet these wants. Researchers have constructed transistors from natural supplies and designed substrates—that’s the wafer the transistors go into—out of metallic foils and even paper. The chip Myers’ workforce described Wednesday consists of “thin-film transistors” comprised of metallic oxides—a mixture of indium, gallium, and zinc—that may be made thinner than their silicon counterparts. The substrate is polyimide, a form of plastic, moderately than a silicon wafer. It’s low cost, skinny, and versatile—and likewise a little bit of a ache to engineer. Plastic melts at a decrease temperature than silicon, that means some manufacturing strategies involving warmth are now not usable. And the skinny transistors might include imperfections, that means vitality would not transfer across the circuitry in ways in which chipmakers anticipate. In contrast with trendy chips, the design additionally makes use of much more energy. These are the identical points that bedeviled chipmakers within the 1970s and ’80s, Myers factors out. He can now sympathize along with his older colleagues.

In contrast with the billions present in trendy 64-bit silicon processors, 18,000 gates doesn’t sound like a lot, however Myers speaks of them with pleasure. Positive, the microprocessor doesn’t do a lot; it simply runs some check code he wrote 5 years in the past that makes certain all of the elements are working. The chip can run the identical kind of code as one among Arm’s frequent, silicon-based processors.

That consistency with silicon gadgets is vital, explains Catherine Ramsdale, a coauthor of the analysis and senior vice chairman of know-how at PragmatIC, which designs and produces the versatile chips with Arm. Whereas the supplies are new, the concept is to borrow as a lot as attainable from the manufacturing course of for silicon chips. That method, it’s simpler to supply the chips en masse and maintain down prices. Ramsdale says these chips may cost about one-tenth as a lot as comparable silicon chips, due to a budget plastic and decreased tools wants. It’s, sure, a “pragmatic” method of going about issues, she says.