A metamaterial which could stop electronics from eating the planet

A bit late but  read my latest for Technology Guardian in full and not just a link……..top four story three days in a row…..including interview with Warren East of ARM and videos….follow this link or read it below.

Go into a big electronics retailer such as PC World and you’ll find no signs that boast of the percentage of recycled electronic components a laptop or smart TV uses. And it’s probably an arrangement that suits many in the industry, as they make their money selling more and more new components.

However, a technology that is about to be spun out of Oxford University may change this 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.”

Chris Stevens said: “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.”

Stevens is the engineering lecturer – and successful academic-entrepreneur with one spin-out already to his name – who has led the team that aims to challenge the status quo. Taking the science behind the Pentagon’s cloaking device, they came up with a technology that replaces the solder, pins and wiring of the conventional computer with Lego-like blocks of silicon stuck to a Velcro-like metamaterial board that can wirelessly transmit or conduct both data and power. Science fiction turns into reality, with wallpaper that links up the components of your entertainment system and computers disguised 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.

Stevens says he even tried to persuade Microsoft to use the new metamaterial for its new Surface tablet, so 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”.  But it was too unproven for the software giant to bite.

Watching the videos of the first demonstrations it is easy to miss the potential of the technology, as the copper-wire and balsa-wood test beds look more like something created by British scientists during the second world war rather than the future of computing.

However, as the LEDs light up as they are waved over the wire and the data from a USB stick is flashed up on a screen simply with a tap of the stick on the metaboard, the potential for this cheap transmitting and conductive technology becomes clear.

“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.

By embedding copper coils into a conductive layer of material to a form a kind of 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”.

As a result, rather than “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”, the chips could be simply peeled off and reused in a lower-end computer, then again in a smart TV, and at the end of their lifetime, in a washing machine.

However, Stevens admits that, “while I have already done a lot of the physics and I have things that work in individual bits to my satisfaction, it is going to be hard to convince a lot of people until I have built an actual carbon demo”.

And that depends on funds.

“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.”

Stevens’s work “displays significant potential to alter the current design, manufacture and use of electronic circuits in a wide number of applications”, says Darren Cadman, research co-ordinator at the Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Centre at Loughborough University.

“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.

However, like Stevens, he acknowledges that “further investment will be needed to ensure it is robust enough for its intended applications – robust in terms of data rates, accuracy of data, range or proximity of devices”.

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 with Cadman that Stevens’s work has a great deal of potential – but warns that “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.”

Cadman cautions that “while a lot of the ideas in research laboratories appear to be groundbreaking the challenge is always to get them into economic production”. For every idea that makes it to commercial exploitation, “hundreds get no further than proof of concept as the need to manufacture chips in their billions reliably and cost-effectively is quite a difficult hurdle to overcome”.

Nonetheless, he says, “it’s sometimes simple inertia that holds an idea back, and then they suddenly appear”.

3D transistors are a good example of something launched with a great deal of fanfare recently but that have 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.”

In the end East believes that the goal of truly flexible electronics, where the whole computer is flexible and can even be worn like a wristband, is possible only “if we can do away with all physical connections and do it wirelessly”. Yet “the people who are making the money now aren’t going to want to be displaced”.

For Cadman, this wireless 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”.

Despite such plaudits, Stevens is realistic enough to know that the success of the technology depends “on the economic gain of the cost of first manufacture and the motivation of manufacturers to improve recycling”.

“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 though is more bullish: “In fact it’s a real case of Oxford University versus the rest of the world – and not for the first time.”

And with interest from some of the biggest names in electronics and chemicals from the USA, Korea and India, perhaps Oxford will win again

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