Most microprocessors are made using silicon. And most are rigid, which means that if you want to put them in flexible devices like folding phones or wearables, they’ll need to be placed in a section that doesn’t bend.

ARM has just unveiled a new PlasticARM chip that bucks both trends. It’s a natively flexible processor made with plastic instead of silicon.

The company says PlasticARM is the “first fully functional non-silicon ARM processor.” The first chip was manufactured last fall using PragmatIC’s FlexLogIC manufacturing system.

ARM says plastic could be much cheaper to produce, while their flexible nature would allow them to be used in different sorts of applications. They can be used with paper, plastic, or metal foil substrates. So not only are we looking at a chip technology that could be used for wearable devices like smartwatches and foldable phones, but also for food packaging, bandages or other wearable medical devices, and all sorts of other applications.

But while ARM’s new technology could eventually pave the way for cheaper, more flexible electronics, the first PlasticARM chip offers pretty barebones specs:

  • 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0 SoC (system on a chip)
  • ARMv6-M architecture
  • 20 kHz clock during testing (Support for up to 29 kHz @ 3V or 40 kHz @ 4.5V)
  • 128 bytes RAM
  • 456 bytes ROM
  • 0.8-μm process

ARM claims that despite those rather basic features, the chip is “twelve times more complex than the previous state-of-the-art flexible electronics.”

You can find more details in a paper that ARM engineers have submitted to the science journal Nature, titled “A natively flexible 32-bit Arm microprocessor.”

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  1. I’d expect a CPU made of this sort of material to be bigger, run a lot hotter and last a lot shorter than the same thing implemented in silicon run at the same clock speed. It’d break sooner especially if you keep bending it.
    I think ICs like this will be mostly seen in small machine controllers that need to be flexible to fit space constraints, then bent exactly once, or wherever there’s a lot of planar space and little budget.

  2. Hmm…I’m thinking a wearable device that can communicate with other injectable devices. Say for medical or cosmetic reason you were injected with microscopic sensors. ( heck, could even be with along botox ) Then, the brains would be something worn that could be taken off periodically and would sync with sensors to inform then how to proceed…depending on conditions. For example, to shape an object, you may not want to activate every object, merely the ones to produce the desired shape.

  3. Well, main questions is what’s the point. These dimensions are enough to fit ARM CPUs with a performance of a few years old phone, and for most applications where the flexibility is needed, bending radius will be much bigger, centimeters range, so on 9mm range deviation from a flat surface is small, so ‘hard’ chip can be attached to the bending surface. Plus, the problem are batteries.
    In the end for, say, flexible wrist band of ‘nokia morpheus’ type device you can have flexible screen and an array of small batteries and normal silicone chip evenly distributed under the surface, pretty much like your normal metal watch strap.

    1. “what’s the point?” – I might just as easily ask the same question about your line of questioning – this thing is very early in its development and the challenge will be in how a great many people apply their imagination to the evolution of a new technology

      By way of example what would our world look like today if your question had stopped in its tracks the early development of our present silicon tech back in the 1960s?

    1. Some thermoplastics are electrically conductive. Like Acetal, which has been used as a semiconductor.

  4. Interesting. I’d like to see how they plan on ensuring that the SMT solder pads don’t break during flexing. Something like an ARM chip will have a very high count of very tiny solder points in its BGA package. Usually you only see very simple chips on flex PCBs, with fewer/larger solder pads.

    Also, I wonder what kind of cooling solution would be used for a chip that doesn’t always have a flat surface to mount a heatsink to.

    1. I just don’t see it physically possible. If you bend something with thousands of transistors you eventually will make them collide and touch between them, causing malfunction.

      We would have to obtain some kind of chips that would use light as processing power through carbon nanotubes, as they can be quite flexible. This is really so experimental…

      1. I’m not even so concerned about what is happening inside the chip. I’m concerned about the way the chip is implemented on the PCB.