Discovering new ways of making and manipulating materials at nanometre scales should help to maintain the computer industry's relentless drive towards ever greater miniaturization and performance. But in this issue, Xiangfeng Duan and colleagues show that, in addition to allowing the development of high-performance nanoelectronics, these techniques may also be useful for making flexible electronics over large areas and at low cost (Nature 425, 274–278; 200310.1038/nature01996).

At present, making microelectronics involves a lot of waste. More than 95% of the bulk of the precious silicon wafers from which most microchips are made serves no other purpose than as a mechanical support for the circuitry patterned into its surface. For laptop computers, digital cameras, portable music players and other high-value gadgets, the cost associated with such waste is easily absorbed into the price. But for products such as 'smart clothing' or electronic paper — which involve higher volumes, large areas and more modest price tags — this cost becomes prohibitive. Moreover, the high temperatures required to grow crystalline silicon (in excess of 1,400 °C) make many such products difficult to produce at any price. But by growing only as much semiconductor material as is needed for electronic circuitry on the surface of an inexpensive substrate material such as glass or plastic (see picture), significant reductions in cost can be achieved.

Commercially, large-area electronic devices are based on either amorphous silicon (used in most LCD displays) or, more recently, organic semiconductors (as in the display on James Bond's electric shaver). The performance of these materials, however, is poor compared to conventional crystalline semiconductors, and is always likely to be so. But by using newly developed techniques for growing crystalline semiconductors in the form of tiny nanometre-diameter wires and ribbons — techniques that are currently being pursued for making nanoscale devices (see “Wires on water” by Peidong Yang, above) — Duan et al. show that high-performance, low-cost macroelectronics could be just around the corner.

By aligning silicon nanowires or cadmium-sulphide nanoribbons between metal electrodes, the authors can create field-effect transistors — the fundamental building-blocks of modern electronic circuitry — with characteristics better than those of similar amorphous silicon or organic semiconductor devices, and approaching those of polycrystalline silicon devices. By increasing the density of wires and ribbons between the metal electrodes, Duan et al. expect soon to be able to improve this performance even further. And with the recent advent of nanowires made from high-mobility materials such as indium phosphide and indium arsenide, such devices could in future exceed the performance of crystalline silicon devices.