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Past Winner
2001 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Arokia Nathan

Flexible Electronics

University of Waterloo


Arokia Nathan
Arokia Nathan

Folding a map can be one of life's little challenges. For Dr. Arokia Nathan, it's a big one. But then, the thin, flexible plastic maps he's developing are digital.

The University of Waterloo electrical and computer engineer's research is at the cutting edge of work to develop electronics, including sensors and displays, on flexible plastic. It's highly innovative science for which Dr. Nathan is receiving a 2001 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering awards.

Dr. Nathan's research captures the imagination in its potential to bring futuristic concepts to reality. These range from smart-cards in which your bank information could be digitally displayed, to the creation of digital X-ray images, replacing the need for X-ray films. The researcher's long-term goal is to create the ultimate smart-plastic device – a Personal Digital Assistant.

"This is the beginning of a new technological revolution," says Dr. Nathan, who grew up in Malaysia. "Can you imagine a generation of children who will be able to unroll a digital book or computer from a tube? It's a real paradigm shift."

Moving flexible plastic displays and sensors from fundamental research to reality will be the focus of Dr. Nathan's NSERC Steacie Fellowship research.

The underlying technology for both sensors and displays is similar, explains Dr. Nathan. For sensors, a device captures light energy (for example, visible or X-ray) and converts it into an electrical current. For displays such as computer monitors, the opposite occurs – electrical energy is transformed into light.

In both cases the technical challenge lies in creating what are known as thin-film silicon circuits on flexible plastic.

These silicon circuits – the logic behind these devices – are currently fabricated at about 300°C. Plastics, however, lose their essential physical properties at this temperature. Dr. Nathan must therefore develop techniques to make these circuits at much lower temperatures, without compromising the circuit performance.

"My research is still in the proof of concept stage," explains Dr. Nathan. But this hasn't dampened his enthusiasm. He's already overcome major technical challenges in the basic science underpinning thin-film silicon technology and related integrated circuit design.

The new NSERC Steacie Fellow is confident that he will have working prototypes of flexible plastic displays within the period of the fellowship, and be able to make the technology available to Canadian industry.

"The time gap between science and product is getting narrower and narrower," says Dr. Nathan.