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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Kos Galatsis > Microelectronics or Nanoelectronics?

Kos Galatsis
Chief Operating Officer
FENA and WIN Centers, UCLA

Shall we refer to it as microelectornics, nanoelectronics or the semiconductor industry? It's a little confusing, but since most integrated circuit device and feature sizes have passed well below the 100nm limit (nm stands for nanometer), it would be fair to say we are in the midst of the transition to the new nanoelectronic domain (a subset of nanotechnology). With that said, so what's really changed? More transistors in my Playstation? More computational power in my laptop? More memory for my iPod? Yes, that's part of it. Such euphoric trends have blessed us for many years now, that being the size scaling of integrated circuit devices. But the hot question remains, will such exponential technological advancements continue indefinitely?

June 27th, 2007

Microelectronics or Nanoelectronics?

Nanoelectronics, sometimes referred to as "microelectronics" or "semiconductors" is an important technology sub-group of "nanotechnology". Advances in microelectronics, semiconductors and now nanoelectronics have profoundly contributed to mankinds sophisticated advancement and the world's economic efficiency and health (expected revenues to exceed $250 billion in 2007). Colossal corporations such as IBM, Intel and Samsung have blown off their 1990's dominance of the microelectronic industry and have now redefined (or shall I say renamed) their dominance of the "nanoelectronic" industry. The difference now being that device and feature sizes have been reduced below 100nm.

Thanks to the nanoelectronic industry's continued push in maintaining Moore's law (double of transistor density every 18-24 months), processors with over millions and even billions of transistors are becoming common place. For instance, Intel's dual-core Intel Itanium processor contains 1.7 billion transistors and IBM's Cell chip used in the Playstation 3 has about 240 million transistors. Not to mention advances in memory. Samsung recently released their 64-Gbyte FLASH drives for laptops. That's a phenomenal number of devices that elegantly orchestrate to deliver high performance computing. Compared to similar grand man-made systems, such as our largest populated city, Bombay, where a mere 18 million people reside comes nothing close to being branded as an elegantly orchestrated creation. Even more impressive are the strict dimensional control requirements that nanoelectronic manufacturers are required to maintain. For instance, transistors planned to be manufactured in a 32nm-node technology require sub-nm critical dimensional tolerances so that device performance meet certain specifications. That's equivalent to accurately controlling and pin-pointing a standard ball-point-pen somewhere between the distance from Los Angeles to New York. Impressive indeed.

There is no question, of the most sophisticated industries that deserve the respect and appreciation of all is the old semiconductor industry, what I call the new nanoelectronic industry. Be it logic, memory, sensors, actuators or any other nanoelectronic building-block, most such technologies rely on the magic of photolithography/diffusion/etching processes and the body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the past 50 years since Jack Kilby's and Robert Noyce's invention of the monolithic integrated circuit - the microchip. But many onlookers including the industry itself continue to ponder the question as to how much longer are we be able to enjoy such technological advancements and progress?

To ensure such continual growth the semiconductor and nanoelectronic research and development demands tremendous investment to continue scaling and provide new technological breakthroughs that will circumvent bottlenecks that threaten progress. However, by some estimates (John E. Kelly, senior vice president and group executive of the IBM Technology Group.) the picture seems gloomy with the magnitude of current investment at an estimated annual shortfall of approximately $1.5 billion. In a game of catch up, during the past few years some impressive initiatives have cropped up in the United States that aim to produce the intellectual body required to take full of advantage of nanotechnology and exploit nanoelectronics by transitioning from electronics solely based on classical physics to now deal with quantum mechanics which influence most design, device and architecture decisions when working at nano-length scales. Some of these organized initiatives include the Focus Research Program Center (FCRP) that includes one of the world's largest university led Center in nanoelectronics and the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) that includes the world's largest research effort in spintronics for logic applications. These initiatives involve semiconductor industry consortia working in a pre-competitive fashion to pool resources to pursue long term research in nanoelectronics. The arrangement is similar to SEMATECH or IMEC but working on longer-term challenges and having a more university centric operational flavor.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal to discuss and talk about in this exciting time, and so much more exciting is what is still to come that goes beyond our imagination. New business opportunities will arise and a number of technologies derived by research will become mainstream. Those that don't, will off-shoot to fulfill niche applications, but most however will tease the underbelly of the economy and entrepreneurs by quietly being archived away as history as failed start-ups, unused patents and unread journal publications.

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