How to build a disposable microchip

September 23, 2019

BY Alexander Kalis

Many chips like those built by Milltrust’s British Innovation Fund investee company PragmatIC, will be embedded into objects like clothes, food and water-treatment plants. 

EVERY RESEARCH project needs a striking name, and it is hard to think of a better one than “Plastic Armpit”. The idea is to design and build a chip with an electronic nose, which can sample the odours and chemicals in its environment. Such a chip, says James Myers, a senior engineer at Arm, a British-based chip designer, could be usefully attached to all sorts of consumer goods. Its name came from the idea of weaving such a chip into items of clothing, where it could let oblivious wearers know when the need for a shower was becoming urgent.

Despite the jocularity, the project—a collaborative venture between Arm, the University of Manchester, PragmatIC, a firm which makes flexible electronics, and Unilever, a British-Dutch consumer giant—is a serious one. Gartner, a research firm, reckons that 259m PCs were sold last year. Pew, a pollster, puts the number of smartphones in the world at more than 2.5 billion. Arm, whose designs dominate the market for the sorts of low-power microprocessors that go into everything from smartphones to televisions, organises its business around the assumption that there will be a trillion computers in the world by 2035.