By Sarah Bell, British Science Association Media Fellow,


The teenage years can be a time of anxiety. In 1998, 16 year old Radu Sporea from Bucharest was more worried than most. He’d spent the night reading the Romanian edition of CHIP magazine, which reported the breakthrough Intel Pentium II processor. “This is the future”, thought Radu. “The pinnacle of technology. And I’ve missed it”.

I recall a similar moment. ‘Where were you when you heard about the Pentium II?’ isn’t typical coffee conversation, but Radu and I are soon swapping stories. I remember thinking that surely personal computers didn’t need to get any faster or store any more data. Spreadsheets and word processors ran just fine, we had email and could even surf the web. What more could we possibly do with all that computer power?

I now have more power and data in a computer that I carry around in my pocket, which I euphemistically call my ‘phone’. Surely now is the future? What else could we possibly do with personal electronics?

Radu is smarter than me. While I continued to be boggled by digital cameras, zip-drives, mini-disc players and web cams, Radu got to work. Back in 1998 he recovered from his teenage existential crisis to build a career in electronic engineering. He’s not going to miss out on the future again.

According to Radu, one day soon I might have a phone that can fall out of my pocket, onto the pavement and under my bicycle wheel without shattering. That will definitely be the future – and it will be thanks to plastic electronics.

Plastic electronics

‘The coming age of plastic electronics’ was the title of Radu’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel Award Lecture for engineering at this year’s British Science Festival. “We need to rethink how we make electronics” Radu told the audience in Bradford. “Plastic electronics will be made by printing, stamping, dipping and spray coating, using materials that are like gels, pastes and inks”.

Printing electronic components could revolutionise manufacturing, making electronics not only more flexible, but also cheaper. “Electronic devices like TV screens could be printed on big rolls of plastic or textiles”, Radu explained.

But we are not there yet. Plastic electronics has some drawbacks. According to Radu the downsides are reduced speed of the final devices, low yield from the manufacturing process and poor uniformity. Printing on plastic is not as reliable and repeatable as conventional methods of fabrication.

Student research and source gated transistors

Radu’s research at the University of Surrey is improving the design of transistors that may form part of future printable, plastic electronics. He has a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowship to work on source gated transistors.

Transistors are the workhorses of computing. Making smaller and smaller transistors has been central to the dramatic advances in computing since the 1950s. Now the challenge is to make transistors that will work reliably and uniformly when printed on plastic surfaces.

Radu works in collaboration with A-level students as part of the SATRO [link to] summer placement programme. Last summer he worked with 17 year old Tom Burridge on a project to demonstrate how modifying the design of source gated transistors can reduce the heat produced when a current passes through them. Self-heating has been a key concern in the development of these transistors, with worries that exponential increases in temperature with current could limit performance and melt the components.

Tom worked with Radu to model new designs of source gated transistors on a computer, showing that previous concerns about self-heating can be alleviated. The outcomes of the research have been published this week in Nature Scientific Reports. Tom’s experience has inspired him to further studies in engineering, which he will commence this year at Cambridge.

Engineering careers

Radu’s own career has been shaped by a series of inspirational mentors and random co-incidences. “I started programming when I was six, before I had even started school”. Radu went to a high school in Bucharest that specialised in computer science, and studied computer systems engineering at university. Even after his Pentium II moment of awakening, Radu didn’t consider working on electronics hardware until he tried to find a summer placement job whilst at university.

“I went to see two professors that day”, he tells me. “The first one worked on speech recognition and audio synthesis, but when I got to his office he wasn’t there”. Undeterred, Radu went to see the second professor who worked on chip design and she offered him a placement on the spot. “It could have gone the other way”, says Radu, who hasn’t looked back since.

Radu is the new Recorder for the Engineering Section of the British Science Association. It is unsurprising that he is keen to help get more young people engaged in engineering. “People are trying all sorts of things. There is a sense of urgency”, Radu says. He thinks student placement programmes like those run by SATRO and the Nuffield Foundation should be expanded to reach more young people from a wider range of backgrounds. Student themselves could then act as ambassadors to their peers, providing testimonials about their engineering experiences.

The future is yours

Working with students on improving the design of plastic electronics is all well and good. But there are bigger questions about the future of this technology. Radu thinks “we need a killer app”. And this doesn’t mean downloading a ray gun from the app store.

To make real jumps in innovation we need to find radical new uses for plastic electronics. And Radu wants our help. “The public are essential” he tells me. “Electronic components are commodities these days, so it is the applications for consumers that really matter”.

Radu asked the audience in Bradford to send him ideas – by tweet, email or even in that nostalgic analog format, a letter. My head is still spinning from the Pentium II, but Radu knows the public are full of creative ideas about the future of electronics.

Send Radu your ideas, and who knows? Maybe one day two geeks at a science festival will be chatting about ‘where were you when you heard about…’ your next big idea.

Sarah Bell is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and she was placed at Sarah is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and director of the UCL Engineering Exchange.