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Computers of the future: Made of glass?

PC World
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By Martyn Williams

(IDG) -- Engineers in Japan have moved one step closer to their goal of building a personal digital assistant directly onto a sheet of glass. If they are successful, your handheld computer could look just like a small glass panel, possibly as early as 2003.

That could be possible because engineers at Fujitsu Laboratories have developed a new manufacturing process for thin-film transistors.

It has been possible to build integrated circuits directly onto glass for some time, but the technology has thus far only allowed relatively simple devices to be produced on a glass substrate. This is because the speed at which electrons move, called their mobility, is relatively slow on glass.

Current poly-silicon displays have a mobility fast enough to enable some chips, such as driver chips, to be produced directly onto the same piece of glass as the liquid-crystal display they control.

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The electrons in anything more complex, such as a system large-scale integrated circuit or a microprocessor, have to move at much higher speeds and so require either glass with higher mobility or separate silicon-based components. These are packaged in plastic, inserted into circuit boards, and then connected with wires to the glass panel.

Hitting High Temperatures

Engineers have known how to increase glass mobility for some time -- crystals used in the display need to have a larger grain size--but doing so at a temperature below 550 degrees Celsius, the point at which the glass substrate begins to melt or become distorted, has been a problem.

The new manufacturing process developed by engineers at Fujitsu creates crystals with a faster mobility while keeping the temperature below 450 degrees.

"There are many problems to overcome before commercial production, but this is the most basic problem and it has been overcome," says Nobuo Sasaki, an engineer working on the process at Fujitsu Laboratories.

In the lab, Sasaki has been able to produce a poly-silicon TFT LCD panel with faster mobility on a 12-inch square glass substrate using the new method. He says the technology could easily be applied to substrates of 1 square meter in size. A substrate is typically used to produce several LCDs at once and is cut up after manufacturing is complete.

Looking Ahead

"At the moment we can make some simple components on the glass," says Sasaki of the state of development of the technology. "Our objective is making a processor or memory on the glass substrate, so we are now developing some basic components of processors and memory on glass. We want to integrate those components on the glass and are planning to ship this in 2003."

Engineers want to mount components directly onto glass because of potentially large savings in manufacturing costs. "We can make both [display] pixels and integrated circuits in the same production process. If we can make many functions at the same time, the systems become cheaper," says Sasaki. "[Our goal is] to make it more than 50 percent cheaper than current production."

PDAs or computers made using the new technology won't be much larger than the displays they now house, he says. "At the moment I am thinking about integrating [the components] in the peripheral regions, around 2 or 3 millimeters wide, around the display edge."





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