A Boise company is advancing the day when doctors will be able to monitor their patients’ blood pressure, temperatures and other vital signs without the need for an office visit.
All it will take is a lightweight monitoring device contained in a patch or placed into a vest or integrated into clothing.
American Semiconductor has developed technology that could make that type of monitoring possible.
Through collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory team at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, it created a patented technology that thins a traditional silicon wafer full of newly made chips, making it flexible enough to use on curved surfaces and in clothing. Because silicon is fragile, the company then coats the wafer with a polymer backing and cuts it into individual chips. The chips are flexible enough to use on curved surfaces, in labels and in clothing.
And the company did it in its nondescript, two-story headquarters at 6987 W. Targee St. near the Boise Airport, a building that doesn’t even have a sign.
American Semiconductor says it is the only company making flexible chips. The technology required to make them is protected by five patents.
The company has a long history of working with the Air Force lab, beginning with the development of advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes for space applications. By 2012, their relationship had evolved into one centered on flexible electronics, says Richard Ellinger, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Sensors developed for soldiers
Engineer Douglas Hackler and his wife, Lorelli, founded American Semiconductor in 2001, when they viewed the economy and tech jobs as being in bad shape. They wanted to establish a company that could provide high-quality jobs and demonstrate that U.S. manufacturing, especially in Idaho, could compete with other companies throughout the world.
Besides the Hacklers, majority shareholders are local and regional leaders in Idaho technology investments. The company declined to name them, though Hackler in an October 2016 email said they included Tim Haney, a Boise-area entrepreneur and tech consultant; and Kelly Fuller, a former Micron controller. It also declines to disclose sales, though Heckler’s email said flexible electronics had generated $13 million in revenue since 2012.
The Air Force was interested in developing wearable sensors that could monitor hydration levels, body temperature and muscle strain in soldiers. It also wanted sensors to detect leaks in fuel bladders, monitor munitions inventories and keep track of temperatures in heat-sensitive liquids. All these applications required a flexible chip that could be attached to the body or to containers.
“Typical silicon-based, integrated circuits are brittle, rigid components that are packaged in a way that protects them,” says Dan Berrigan, a research scientist at the Air Force laboratory. “Working with American Semiconductor, we took silicon integrated-circuit chips and thinned them until they became flexible but were still able to maintain circuit functionality. This now allows us to place the microcontrollers — essentially minicomputers — in places we couldn’t before.”
Says Ellinger: “We don’t change any functionality, we don’t change how complex the chips can actually work for you. All we’ve done is make it thinner and make it flexible.”
No more green circuit boards
Integrated circuits contain a set of electronic circuits placed on a chip. The flexible chips are thinner than a human hair. The chips and other components can be placed onto plastic sheets. No more bulky green circuit boards.
“Thinning silicon wafers is a well-known technology,” Ellinger says. “However, taking thinning to the extremes that we do is necessary to make chips flexible. This then requires innovations in materials handling, polymer applications and assembly.”
In November, the chip was named Best New Material or Component Development in the wearable-tech category of a California trade show put on by IDTechEx, a British market-research firm specializing in emerging technologies.
“Being recognized as one of the best in the world truly underlies the benefits of military and industry working together to meet Air Force needs,” Berrigan says.
The company employs 11 people and hopes to expand to 30 as flexible chips start getting used in products. Hackler and Ellinger say American Semiconductor offered the chips for public sale last May and now has orders to begin filling next year, using manufacturing equipment in laboratory. The Targee Street location includes two acres that could be used to build a plant if needed.
General Electric, Boeing, NASA and the Air Force are among customers that have publicly acknowledged working with American Semiconductor, Ellinger says. He anticipates seeing items such as medical monitors and smart tags. Smart soles in shoes could monitor a runner’s stride and how the foot hits the ground.
Sensors in Olympic jackets?
The market is almost limitless, Ellinger says. Cellphones and car-key fobs could be made flatter. Sensors could alert a car’s driver to wear in car tires, belts, brakes and brake pads. Controls for heating, cooling, the radio and a view screen installed in driverless cars could all be placed in an armrest conveniently located for the “driver.”
“All of those things, you can’t do today,” he says.
At the Winter Olympics in South Korea, U.S. athletes are wearing jackets warmed with battery-powered heaters. In the future, the rigid components could be replaced with flexible chips that could be sewn into the fabric. The manufacturer has spoken with American Semiconductor to do just that, Ellinger says.
“In the future, technology like ours will be used to embed sensors, communications and active controls into these types of garments, without requiring bulky, non-flexible electronic boxes,” he says.
A flexible chip can easily be affixed to a vial of heat-sensitive insulin, while a rigid chip could not attach to the rounded bottle, Ellinger says. Demonstrating the technology, he determined the temperature of the liquid inside the bottle by using a cellphone program that obtained data from the chip. The same could be done with bags of donated blood.
The tag measures the temperature of the glass that is in direct thermal contact with the liquid inside.
“Glass is a thermal conductor, just as your glass of ice water feels instantly cold or your cup of coffee feels very warm to your touch,” he says. “Our products will read those temperature changes instantly and accurately.”
Previously, such measurements could only be taken using a rigid chip attached to a box or pallet, not from individual bottles.
The hope: Billions of chips
The technology will likely show up first in simpler products and then move to more sophisticated items as word spreads through the industry. Ellinger says the company believes some of the earliest commercial applications will be in smart labels and tags. They could be used for pharmaceutical vials and in efforts to eliminate counterfeit products.
American Semiconductor hopes to eventually produce billions of flexible chips per year.
“The first products that you see will not be taking a phone and changing it,” he says. “But what you will find is that people will put electronics in places where they haven’t been available before, and then other products will start migrating to them.”