U.S. researchers say a new technique that uses flexible plastic in place of silicone chips could lead to much cheaper cell phones, computers and other electronic devices.

A major hurdle in the way of creating such plastic-based devices -- the relatively high energy levels required to retrieve stored information -- has been tackled by scientists at the University of Iowa, working with researchers at New York University.

Encoding information using light that can be transmitted by fiber optics is fairly easy and not costly, they say, but the truly efficient storage of information requires magnetism that allows data to persist for years requiring constant power input.

"So a critical issue is how to convert information from one type to another," Iowa computer engineering Professor Michael Flatté says.

"Although it does not cost a lot of energy to convert one to the other in ordinary, silicon-chip-based computers, the energy cost is very high for flexible, plastic computing devices that are hoped to be used for inexpensive 'throwaway' information processors," he explained.

While silicon has been the material of choice for computer chips because creating complex circuits with it is easier than from almost any other material, plastic could be an attractive alternative in cases where the inflexibility or cost of silicon might work against its use.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers reported their success in accomplishing the conversion and transfer of information between flexible, organic light-emitting diodes and a magnet without the need for electric current flowing between them.

"The magnetic fields from the magnetic storage device directly modify the light emission from the device. This could help solve problems of storage and communication for new types of inexpensive, low-power computers based on conducting plastics," says Markus Wohlgenannt of Iowa's Optical Science and Technology Center.

While their initial studies involved fairly large electronic devices, miniaturization could yield tiny devices operating with the same technique offering high data storage capacities.

In 2011, European researchers reported developing the first flexible plastic computer chip, featuring 4,000 organic transistors layered onto a flexible piece of thin plastic.

"Compared to using silicon, this has the advantage of lower price and that it can be flexible," researcher Jan Genoe of the IMEC nanotechnology center in Belgium, said.

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