Keeping pace with semiconductor innovation

Materials World magazine
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1 Sep 2014

By 2020, 12.5 billion devices will be connected to the cloud and generating data. The potential applications for integrated circuits are endless but the cost of R&D is high. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen reports.

If only you could charge a mobile device with one roll of the eyeballs or resuscitate it with a gentle breath of air. Coming soon. Until then, two challenges lie ahead. At infrastructure level, heat dissipation of high-performance server processor chips is a key limiter. At application level, smart mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, suffer from battery constraints. Meanwhile, multimedia data traffic is putting heavy demands on the network, storage and computer centres. At the Imec Technology Forum in San Francisco, USA, speakers piled in to give their views on industry trends to enable scaling.

Yield at the nanometre scale

Over the next few years, the semiconductor industry must come up with novel complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) designs and processing technologies to enable faster data processing and larger storage. ‘The challenges of extending Moore’s law continue to grow as design rules shrink. In order to achieve success, we need to develop comprehensive and deeper collaborations,’ said Bobby Bell of KLA-Tencor, USA.

Processing and fabrication

Optical lithography – used to pattern structures on a silicon wafer – is widely used but poses significant processing delays. Techniques were discussed to overcome this, such as extreme ultra violet (EUV) lithography. The process allows printing of smaller features by decreasing the wavelength of light exposure and/or increasing the numerical aperture of the equipment. The growing interest in directed self-assembly (DSA) to reduce the pitch of the final printed structure was also examined. DSA is a bottom-up technology and relies on the self-assembly of block co-polymers, but it has yet to fully replace conventional techniques.

According to Professor Luc Van den hove of Imec in Belgium, the consolidation of the semiconductor industry has also led to a decreasing number of companies who are willing to take on costs relating to processing and R&D innovation. Van den hove urged fabless companies, device manufacturers, and materials and software suppliers to develop partnerships in order to share costs, mitigate risks and share knowledge.

Is that a chip on your shoulder?
Even with rising R&D costs, the semiconductor industry is in an enviable position. The packaging, road infrastructure and automotive sectors’ increasing demand for integrated chips provides steady growth. However, the largest opportunity for the chip industry will be found in the ‘internet of healthy things’, said Van den hove. ‘The integration capabilities of nanotechnology can miniaturise medical labs to the size of a chip and allow physicians to do accurate and fast tests in developing countries and isolated regions at an affordable price – US$10 per test.’

But if the semiconductor industry can’t find a way to reduce its R&D costs, the lowly consumer may have to foot the bill. ‘It used to be about having the best tech, now it’s about having the best tech at the lowest cost,’ said Terry Brewer of Missouri-based Brewer Science.

The afternoon panel moderator closed by asking if society is taking technology for granted. ‘Yes,’ shouted a delegate. ‘Because we’re not charging enough for it’.   

The trend

There is an evolution towards more fabless integrated circuit companies – those that outsource the fabrication of components to outside companies, known as semiconductor foundries. The proportion of fabless companies in the USA is expected to reach 33% by 2017.  

What is Moore’s Law?
Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years. The law is named after Gordon E Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation. The law is used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and set targets for R&D. The capabilities of many digital electronic devices such as microprocessors, sensors, memory capacity and even the pixels in a digital camera are strongly linked to Moore’s Law.  

Did you know?

By 2018, global monthly mobile data traffic is predicted to surpass 15 exabytes (15x1018 bytes) compared to 1.5 exabytes per month in 2013  

What do you think?

Is Moore’s Law future-proof? Tweet us at @materialsworld or email materials.world@iom3.org