Switch on to plastic chips

Managing director of Ossila, Dr James Kingsley looking into a silicone waffle at the Kroto Innovation Centre on Broad Lane, Sheffield
Managing director of Ossila, Dr James Kingsley looking into a silicone waffle at the Kroto Innovation Centre on Broad Lane, Sheffield
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Sheffield scientist predicts a new ‘Gold Rush’

A SHEFFIELD scientist who has built a business out of the things that frustrated him as a researcher could be laying the foundations for the next microchip revolution.

When he was working on his PhD at Sheffield University, Dr James Kingsley found he had to spend hours designing special components he needed for his research and finding manufacturers to make them.

The frustrations prompted him to launch Ossila, based at the University’s Kroto Innovation Centre, on Broad Lane, with the aim of providing a bespoke service, supplying materials and components to researchers around the world.

Among the products Ossila makes is a flexible plastic semiconductor that could replace silicon wafers as the substrate – or foundations – for microchips.

Dr Kinglsey reckons ‘plastic electronics’ has the potential to become as big as the existing silicon-based semiconductor industry, and maybe bigger.

He likens research in the field to the “next goldrush,” and jokingly refers to Ossila as the company making the “21st century, hi-tech, nano shovel” that will allow researchers to dig out that gold.

At present, before you can even start to make a microchip you have to grow a cylindrical crystal of silicon and then slice it into wafer thin substrates.

With semiconducting plastics, it should be possible to make rolls of plastic semiconductor substrate up to two metres wide.

What’s more it can be processed without the need to use sealed chambers filled with inert atmospheres – or “glove boxes,” as the scientists know them.

In a flight of fancy, that could become a reality, Dr Kinglsey postulates crisp packets being re-engineered so that they can generate electricity while they sit on supermarket shelves or in the consumer’s hand.

Coming back down to earth, one of the early applications could be low cost, lightweight, flexible solar cell arrays which could be easily mounted on the most fragile of roofs, without the need for drilling through to beams for support.

“People researching the next generation of solar cells need high quality substrates that conduct electricity and let light in,” says Dr Kingsley.

“We provide researchers with hard to find components. We are not aiming to be a manufacturer ourselves, but some of the materials we provide could be used for manufacturing.”

Ossila also makes equipment and provides services to scientists around the world carrying out research in the field of organic electronic, including device fabrication, testing and analysis.