Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRI) and American Semiconductor worked together to combine the silicon industry’s expertise in rigid electronics with high-performance electronics 3D printing. The end result was a new flexible silicon-on-polymer chip.
“Typical silicon-based, integrated circuits are brittle, rigid components that are packaged so that they are protected,” says Dan Berrigan, a research scientist at the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. “When we put them into a flexible form factor, rigidness works against us. Working with American Semiconductor, we took silicon IC chips and thinned them until they became flexible but retained their circuit functions. This lets us place the microcontrollers—essentially minicomputers—in places we couldn’t before.”
Instead of the big, bulky chips of the past, the new microcontrollers can bend and flex. This lets engineers put them in wearable devices for hydration and fatigue monitoring, and in soft robotics for transporting and handling wounded warfighters or the elderly.
“This helps bring wearable sensors and other innovations into the ‘Internet of Things.’ Now you can monitor parameters such as hydration levels, temperature, strain from an arm flexing, and more,” says Berrigan.
Unique to this effort, he continued, not only is the new chip flexible, but it is actually a microcontroller with onboard memory and can control a system as well as collect data for future analysis. The most complex, flexible integrated circuit ever produced, it has a memory more than 7,000 times larger than any other commercially available device.
Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory and American Semiconductor have produced a flexible silicon-on-polymer chip with more than 7,000 times the memory of any other flexible integrated circuit on the market. Manufacturing it combines traditional techniques with 3D electronic printing to create thin, flexible semiconductors that could be important in wearable technology, asset monitoring, logistics, and more.
“It can turn a system on and off, and collect data from a sensor and retain it in memory,” says Berrigan. “We can wrap this type of chip around a fuel bladder sensor to detect leaks or use it to monitor munitions inventory.”
Another benefit of the new microcontroller, according to Berrigan, is that it helps advance the U.S. silicon manufacturing base.
“Whereas the European industrial base is focused on printing all parts of these types of devices, we are helping the U.S. silicon manufacturing community convert to flexible capabilities and combining this with low-cost, 3D-printed electronic circuitry,” says Berrigan. “This is a unique U.S. manufacturing capability.”
The flexible system-on-chip received the “Best New Material or Component Development Award” in the Wearable Technology Category at the 2017 IDTechEx Show, distinguishing it as a significant development for enabling wearable technology devices.
The yearlong effort to produce these devices was also sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Defense Rapid Reaction Technology Office, which supports emerging technology demonstrations to accelerate the delivery of solutions to meet current and future warfighter needs.