Call it a coming-out party for nanoelectronics. While the nano prefix is bandied about by every business and consumer publication now that serious money is being thrown at "nano" endeavors great and small from health care to light, durable tennis rackets the semiconductor industry has been steadily progressing toward the 10- 9 world with every innovation since the dawn of the transistor some 50 years ago. Without fanfare.
So when the International Solid-State Circuits Conference that yearly venue of electronics alchemists took up the theme of "Entering the Nanoelectronic Integrated Circuit Era" earlier this month in San Francisco, the organizers were only stating the obvious: We have entered a new world of electronics, where quantum physics will rear its ugly head and the power/frequency/performance hydra will sting every circuit designer each time a new chip is planned. In the sub-100-nanometer world, every turn may lead designers into a labyrinth from which only the brave may exit.
As Sunlin Chou, Intel's senior vice president and general manager of the Technology and Manufacturing Group, said in his keynote talk at ISSCC, "Skillful integration of new materials, processes and device structures will be essential. Successful nanoelectronics companies will excel in innovation and integration, extend Moore's Law into and beyond the next decade, and drive the development of future growth opportunities."
Last week, the Bush administration revealed its fiscal 2006 budget, which included $344 million for nanotechnology research and development targeting advances in manufacturing, materials, information technologies and medicine. That's a good thing. If only some of that money were in direct support of nanoelectronics R&D, and not funneled through the normal channels of university research via National Science Foundation grants.
In the nano era, the United States can hardly chug along at "normal" R&D appropriation rates. Much smaller high-tech countries, like South Korea, are far more aggressive than that. In his ISSCC keynote speech, Daeje Chin, South Korea's Minister for Information and Communications, called for "a tight collaboration of the device industry with system and service industries, to distribute the risk and to maximize the total social benefit" of nanoelectronics.
Recently, Korea announced a plan to build a ubiquitous information society through the so-called "IT839 Strategy," which encompasses eight new IT services, three infrastructures and nine new growth engines, all of them based on nanoelectronics. The advance of these technologies, according to Chin, will accelerate the wide usage of nanoelectronics.
So, next time you pick up a magazine whose cover shouts "nano," rest assured that you have been part of the nanoelectronics phenomenon for half a century. And you are the drivers for innovations beyond nano. In five to 10 years' time, ISSCC might be exploring "silent silicon" circuits in chips, in walls and in the human body that do their work in silence, in the background of ambient intelligence. It won't be easy to get there. But it certainly will be fun and creative.
Mark the words, also at ISSCC, of Hugo de Man, senior research fellow at IMEC: "The grand challenge will be to design flexible multiprocessor platforms with two-orders-of-magnitude lower power dissipation than today's microprocessors at a 20th of the cost, while coping with the realities of nanoscale physics."
Let the party begin!
By Nicolas Mokhoff, special features editor for EE Times.