By Ed Korczynski, Senior Technical Editor, SemiMD
Thin-film transistors (TFT) made with indium-gallium-zinc-oxide (IGZO) can perform significantly better than TFTs made with low-temperature-poly-silicon (LTPS), and can be made ultra-thin and flexible for integration into a wide variety of devices. Researchers at the Holst Centre—an R&D incubator launched by the Belgian imec and the Dutch TNO in 2005—have been working on flexible TFTs for many years for many applications include flexible displays, intelligent food packaging, and paper identification (ID) documents. Now Holst Center is collaborating with Cartamundi NV, a world leader in production and sales of card and board games, to develop ultra-thin flexible near field communication (NFC) tags for game cards. The goal is an enhanced gaming experience that is interactive and intuitive.
Cartamundi has been working on “iCards” that provide a connection between the physical products and the digital world for many years, and has recently claimed traction with games for the “connected generation”. By working with the Holst Centre to create IGZO TFTs on plastic, Cartamundi aims to lower overall costs while also creating both a thinner and a more robust NFC chip. Currently, Cartamundi NV embeds silicon-based NFC chips in their game cards, connecting traditional game play with electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets. The advanced IGZO TFT technology should improve and broaden the applicability of interactive technology for game cards, compared to the currently-used silicon based NFC chips.
Chris Van Doorslaer, chief executive officer of Cartamundi, said, “Cartamundi is committed to creating products that connect families and friends of every generation to enhance the valuable quality time they share during the day. With Holst Centre’s and imec’s thin-film and nano-electronics expertise, we’re connecting the physical with the digital which will enable lightweight smart devices with additional value and content for consumers.”
“Not only will Cartamundi be working on the NFC chip of the future, but it will also reinvent the industry’s standards in assembly process and the conversion into game cards,” says Steven Nietvelt, chief innovation and marketing officer at Cartamundi. “All of this is part of an ongoing process of technological innovation inside Cartamundi. I am glad our innovation engineers will collaborate with the strongest technological researchers and developers in the field at imec and Holst Centre. We are going to need all expertise on board. Because basically what we are creating is game-changing technology.”
The major challenges are two-fold: low-temperature formation of the IGZO layer, and integration of the IGZO into a complex NFC circuit on plastic. Control of surface states and defect densities is always essential for the production of any working semiconductor device, and defects act as traps for electrons flowing through circuitry. Consequently, for TFT instead of bulk crystal devices the precise control of the many deposited thin-films is essential.
Holst Centre, imec and Cartamundi engineers will look into NFC circuit design and TFT processing options, and will investigate routes for up-scaling of Holst processes to run on large production presses. By keeping the IGZO TFT manufacturing costs low, the flexible chips are intended to be a critical part of Cartamundi’s larger strategy of developing game cards for the connected generation.
“Imec and Holst Centre aim to shape the future and our collaboration with Cartamundi will do so for the future of gaming technology and connected devices,” says Paul Heremans, Department Director Thin Film Electronics at imec and Technology Director at the Holst Centre. “Chip technology has penetrated society’s daily life right down to game cards. We are excited to work with Cartamundi to improve the personal experience that gaming delivers.”
While game cards may not seem as important as healthcare and communications, flexible NFC integration into cards could generate IGZO TFT production volumes that are game changing.