Nano Becomes Focus of Multi-Year, Multi-Million Chip Research Projects
Last month, nanotechnology became the focus of one of the largest semiconductor research programs in a decade.In August, members of the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) formally launched the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), a multi-year, multi-million-dollar program which will look for nano-scale technologies that could be used to continue to push forward the power of computer chips.
The NRI was formed at the urgings of the largest semiconductor manufacturers, including Intel [NASDAQ: INTC], AMD [NYSE: AMD], Freescale [NYSE: FSL], Texas Instruments [NYSE: TXN], IBM [NYSE: IBM] and Micron Technology [NYSE: MU]. It is starting with $1 million for 2005 in “seed” funding for research, and will receive substantially more as it moves along.
Nano World News spoke with Dr. Hans Coufal, who is on assignment from IBM as the founding director of the Nanoelectronics Research Corporation (NERC), which has been chartered to implement the NRI to find out more about their roadmap and how NRI will push the envelope on a wide range of nano research. Dr. Coufal also currently serves as manager of the Device and Systems Innovation Department in IBM’s Research Division.
To learn more about IBM’s ongoing nano research projects, plan to attend The Nano Science and Technology Institute’s Nano Impact Summit, October 19th in Washington, D.C. At this one-day showcase, Dr. H. Kumar Wickramasinghe, Senior Manager for Nanoscale Science and Technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center [NYSE: IBM], will discuss a range of IBM’s latest nano-research and production projects. To register for the Nano Impact Summit and for the full list speakers, please visit www.nsti.org/NanoImpact2005/.
Nanotechnology is gaining increased attention from chip experts mainly because the industry is concerned about “hitting the wall in the next decade” with today’s CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology. In fact, SIA’s president George Scalise said the semiconductor industry is “facing a critical technology transition” over the next decade or so.
Dr. Coufal described the chipmaker’s problem this way: “Charge based computing will start in the next decade to face severe limits and we should start investing now in alternatives and replacements for charge-based electronics. It takes 10-15 years from demo of a concept to a mature tech, so finding replacement for charged based computing needs to begin now.”
NRI is Not Just About ‘Smaller’ Chips
Inside NRI’s Next-Gen Nano Research Agenda
NRI’s work will push the nano-science envelope, and not just focus on how nano sciences can be used to make smaller chips, Dr. Coufal said.
“We should not just think about smaller, but how to use methods that Mother Nature has developed,” states Dr. Coufal. “It’s true that one of the most fundamentals limits [in chip design and fabrication] is the thickness of the gate oxide layer. But, we are now down to a couple of atomic layers of SiO2, and we already have electron tunneling through the layer.” And as for nanotubes, “Nanotubes are interesting, but they are still going to be charge based. They might be relatively easy to integrate, which has yet to be demonstrated. But, the real benefits will be in understanding how they might work in other areas.”
The NRI wants to stretch beyond today’s materials-based nanotechnology work, and better understand how chemical and biological processes at the nano-scales may offer new options to chipmakers. “We will try to understand what we can from Mother Nature,” Dr. Coufal said. “I’m a strong believer in evolution.”
Among the nano-research areas where Dr. Coufal says hold promise are:
- Nano Materials Processes/Nano-Thermal Management – where heat can be diverted or removed in silicon or in encapsulating materials by phonon engineering techniques). “As consumers, we don’t care too much about the size of the chip in our laptop or PDA, for example. We just care that it doesn’t get too hot and how long the battery lasts,” states Dr. Coufal.
- Directed Self-Assembly – where nanoscale components can be treated as building blocks and assembled into complex, hierarchically organized, device-oriented structures. This approach would improve chip yields, production cycles and even help combat increasing lithography and photomask costs. Dr. Coufal notes, “One of the most powerful computers is the human brain, and that is the product of self-assembly.”
- Spintronics -- where rather than shuttle the charge (or packets) back and forth across silicon, you signal information remotely. As Dr. Coufal explains, “In charge based computing we have shuttled electrons back and forth for the last 40 years. And, as packets get smaller and more numerous, we’ve generated much more heat. Spintronics is like that high school experiments with two magnets, where you flipped one and the other moved its pole almost by magic.”
- Nano Modeling – where nanoscale processes are modeled on computers in a way similar to what IBM has done for genetics research in the Blue Gene project. “We are considering working closely with Purdue University on modeling. It is very important to be able to do things in the lab, but rather than use just trial and error, we need theoretical and computational physics and chemistry to optimize it.”
Getting Down To Work – The NRI Roadmap
Dr. Coufal said NRI’s multi-year calendar work would be done in three phases:
- A “technology seeding” phase where NRI will work with National Science Foundation research centers and other university and government research centers to identify promising nanoelectronics areas
- A “trimming phase,” where NRI will carefully evaluate the technologies and see how those devices and approaches work on their own, as well as in consort with one another. “So, we will carefully trim back those sprouts to have a chance to grow sunflowers,” Dr Coufal said; and
- A “prototyping” phase, where NRI will investigate production and fabrication issues. “At the end, NRI will develop a new switch and demonstrate how it works. And, we will also take several of these [switches] and build a simple computing structure like a ring oscillator so we understand the tolerances and manufacturing issues.”
At first, NRI is jointly working with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and has issued a solicitation to NSF nanoscience centers in the U.S. “We are already receiving proposals and getting inquiries,” Dr. Coufal said. After NSF-funded nanoscience centers have submitted, NRI will then open up its process and encourage any researchers in government, university or private sector to submit ideas.
What makes a good proposal to NRI?
Dr. Coufal has some advice. “We are looking for things that are very different. The right group of people will not necessarily be electrical engineers or solid state engineers alone. We need participation from fields like nanotechnology, biology, and chemistry, so we can tap into new ideas and then find a common denominator for communicating these ideas to one another.” For more information about NRI, go to www.src.org/nri.