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Consumer electronics firms have put micro-controllers in almost everything, but the fact that chips are made out of silicon remains an issue at times. That’s a problem British chip design firm, ARM, is looking to solve with a new chip called PlasticARM. These bendable chips, unlike those we have on phones, smartwatches, etc. today, are made from plastics and can fit a variety of newer form factors.

Even foldable smartphones we have today are designed so that the chipset inside doesn’t need to fold when the phone does. The PlasticARM chips are prepared for a future where chips will be put inside a piece of paper, food packaging bags, and even medical bandages. It’s an essential piece of the puzzle for the ambient computing Internet of Things (IoT) future that tech firms around the world want to build.

The new PlasticARM chip is only a concept though, so it’s going to be a few years before we see anything like this on a real device. The 32-bit chip uses ARM’s most basic design (Cortex M0), 128 bytes of RAM and 456 bytes of ROM, but it’s still 12 times “more complex" than previous “state-of-the-art flexible electronics", according to ARM. The company partnered with flexible circuits maker PragmatIC to develop the chip. ARM has also published a research paper in scientific journal Nature on the chip.

To provide some context, the PlasticARM chip can only achieve 29 KHz clock speeds, a long way away from the 3Ghz clock speed of a Snapdragon 888 chip from Qualcomm. In addition, it uses 20 milliwatts of power, whereas the same ARM design on a Silicon chip uses around 10 microwatts of power. So, the companies still have work to do before a chip like this can actually fit in real-world devices.

“As ultra-low-cost microprocessors become commercially viable, all sorts of markets will open with interesting use cases such as smart sensors, smart labels and intelligent packaging," said John Biggs, Distinguished Engineer, ARM Research. “Products using these devices could help with sustainability by reducing food waste and promote the circular economy with smart life-cycle tracking. Personally, I think that the biggest impact could be in healthcare – this technology really lends itself to building intelligent disposable health monitoring systems that can be applied directly to the skin," he added.


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