Like anyone Designing computer chips for living people, James Myers is a silicone guy at its core. “Silicone is brilliant,” he says. Brilliant because it is a natural semiconductor – capable of conducting electricity based on both conditions and acting as an insulator – and because it can be engineered on a small scale. Bright because it is the most common element on earth, probably produced by sticking to the soles of your feet right now and easily warming the sand. These features make it the mainstay of virtually every technology we use today. People like Myers, an engineer at the British semiconductor firm Arm, spend most of their time thinking about how to pack silicon into more space – from thousands of transistors per chip in the 1970s to billions today. With Moore’s Law, we have, as Myers puts it, “swimming in silicone.”

For the past few years, however, Myers has been focusing on materials other than silicone, such as plastic. That means starting all over again. A few years ago, his team began creating plastic chips that contained dozens of transistors, then hundreds and now Nature On Wednesday, thousands. The 32-bit microprocessor contains 18,000 logic gates – the electrical switches you get from a transistor connection – and the basic lobes of the computer brain: processor, memory, controller, inputs and outputs, etc. What can it do? Think desktop from the early 1980s.

Why turn the technical clock? Because modern silicone chips are brittle, reckless wafers of electronics. Under stress, they crush. And while silicone is getting cheaper, and getting cheaper, there are some use cases where it may never be cheap enough. Consider a computer chip placed inside a milk carton, replacing a printed expiration date with a sensor that can detect chemical signs of spoilage. Useful? Sorta! If the price is low it is only worth adding billions of cans of milk. An application arm is a chest-mounted chip that monitors a patient for arrhythmia – an inconsistent, gentle heartbeat – and is meant to be removed after a few hours. For that, you need a computer that is cheap but, more importantly, it is one to fold. Myers says, “He needs to move on with you and not pop.

A number of materials can theoretically meet those requirements. Researchers have created transistors from organic matter and designed substrates – they are wafers, transistors go – even metal foil and paper. The team of Chip Myers described on Wednesday is made up of a “thin-film transistor” made of a metal oxide – a mixture of indium, gallium and zinc – that can be made thinner than its silicon counterparts. The substrate is polyamide, a type of plastic, instead of silicone wafers. It’s cheap, slim and flexible – and the engineer is a little upset. Plastics melt at lower temperatures than silicone, meaning some manufacturing techniques associated with heat are no longer useful. And thin transistors may have imperfections, meaning that the expectation of an energy radiating chipmaker does not revolve around the circuitry in such a way. Compared to modern chips, the design also uses a lot more power. This is the same issue that plagued chipmakers in the 1970s and ’80s, Myers said. Now he can feel sympathy for his old colleagues.

Compared to the billions found in modern 64-bit silicon processors, 18,000 doors don’t like much, but Myers speaks proudly of them. Sure, the microprocessor doesn’t do much; It just runs some test code that it wrote five years ago to make sure all components are working. The chip can run a similar code from Arm’s common, silicon-based processors.

Compatibility with silicone devices is key, explains Catherine Ramsdale, co-founder of Pragmatic Research and senior vice president of technology, who designs and manufactures flexible chips with arm. When the material is new, the idea is to borrow as much as possible from the manufacturing process for silicone chips. This way, the Chipon E Mess is easy to build and cost-effective. Ramsdale says these chips can cost about a tenth more than comparable silicone chips, as the need for cheaper plastics and equipment is lower. He says yes, there is a “practical” way to go about things.