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Nanoelectronics February 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

Gate-All-Around Nanowire Transistors

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Novel transistor geometries will be necessary if the scaling of integrated circuits is to continue at current rates. Recent research demonstrates significant advances in the development of gate-all-around transistors, bringing the technology a step closer to commercialization.

Description

Scientists at Imec—the Belgian nanoelectronics research institute—are making significant progress in the field of next-generation "gate-all-around" nanowire transistors. As a result of their geometry, such transistors could be smaller than—and not leak as much current as do—the fin field-effect transistors (FinFETs) that currently find use in the majority of commercial devices—potentially leading to enhanced speeds and improved levels of power consumption. The Imec researchers made use of stacked silicon nanowires to fabricate gate-all-around transistors at a scale never previously achieved. Furthermore, in December 2016, Imec also publicized new results that demonstrate the fabrication of fully functioning integrated circuits that incorporate these transistors.

However, despite Imec's relatively large advances, several barriers will continue to impede commercialization of these nanowire transistors. For example, the scientists behind this research admit that they will have to improve the electrical isolation between the gate and the source-and-drain regions of the transistor in order for its performance to be competitive. More broadly, the researchers also stated that they will now focus on "achieving even denser pitches and on leveraging this knowledge to develop gate-all-around lateral nanowire complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor devices."

Implications

The Imec advances in gate-all-around nanowire transistors signal that the technology could soon reach the point at which large-scale commercialization becomes a reality. In addition, the fabrication processes the researchers use to prepare these cutting-edge transistors closely resemble the methods that find use in the assembly of FinFETs—further smoothing the path to commercialization. As the likelihood of the adoption of this transistor geometry increases, major chip manufacturers—vying for market domination at each of the semiconductor-device-fabrication nodes—will intensify their own research efforts in this domain.

Impacts/Disruptions

Gate-all-around nanowire transistors pose a significant threat to FinFETs—the dominant technology since its introduction in 2011. The potential exists for the use of this technology at the 7-nanometer node (not due to reach markets until late 2018 at the earliest). However, realistically, commercialization of the technology will not occur in the next five years, and it is more likely to make an impact on the industry at the subsequent nodes. Major players in the integrated-circuit industry are also likely to want to recoup much of the investment they have made into the development of FinFETs and will seek to extend FinFETs' lifetime for as long as possible—inadvertently delaying the commercialization of any disruptive technologies. However, the early commercial adoption of gate-all-around nanowire transistors could prove to be highly lucrative for players in the integrated-circuit industry. Indeed, Imec cooperates with firms such as GlobalFoundries, Intel, Micron, SK Hynix, Samsung, and TSMC in its research into advanced transistor scaling, demonstrating the extent to which all major players in the field are looking to exploit cutting-edge nanoelectronics research.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Semiconductor, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Developments in the Commercialization of Flexible Electronics

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Until recently, barriers such as poor device reliability slowed the commercial success of many flexible-electronics applications. Recent developments suggest that the landscape is shifting and that many flexible applications are on the cusp of a major commercial breakthrough.

Description

In October 2016, the flexible-electronics player FlexEnable, together with Isorg—the French specialist in organic photodetetectors and large-area image sensors—announced the results of their research into the development of flexible fingerprint sensors. Their device—the first of its kind—boasts an image resolution of 500 dots per inch, making it suitable for a wide range of applications. The partners claim that the sensor, which employs FlexEnable's organic thin-film transistor technology and possesses a thickness of only 0.3 millimeter, is also both lightweight and robust—two extremely important parameters for the commercialization of flexible-electronic devices. Furthermore, the partnership is also collaborating with Green Bit—established fingerprint-scanner manufacturers—to demonstrate the market readiness of this technology. According to an Isorg press release, the sensor "has been paired with Green Bit's image enhancement software to prove its ability to create US Federal Bureau of Investigation–certifiable images."

In November 2016, Thin Film Electronics also announced that it is to provide its flexible near-field-communication (NFC) tags to major players in the olive-oil industry. The tags will find use in the products' packaging and, in addition to enabling product authentication, could also create opportunities around customer engagement and driving online sales.

Implications

The development of the first high-quality flexible fingerprint sensor is a considerable step forward in the commercialization of this technology and represents yet another example of developers' preparing market-ready products that incorporate a flexible element. The flexible nature of this technology—which, in addition, has potential incorporation into existing devices—could also lead to a variety of innovative applications—for example, through the inclusion of an additional layer of security in novel wearable electronics. Successful commercialization could prove to be highly lucrative, and FlexEnable is currently well placed to exploit this opportunity.

Similarly, Thin Film Electronics' most recent partnerships—with their particular focus on product authenticity—could also have significant implications for security and fraud detection. These deals also provide an indication of Thin Film Electronics' growing commercial success. Indeed, the firm announced in October 2016 that it is to lease a new manufacturing facility that will increase the company's production capacity to 5 billion flexible electronics tags per year—"the equivalent of up to $680 million in annual revenue."

Impacts/Disruptions

Both these developments demonstrate that flexible-electronics applications are increasingly making a tangible impact on a wide variety of industrial sectors. The maturity of the technology, relatively low price points, and the willingness of the public to engage with novel products all contribute to the burgeoning commercialization of flexible electronics.

The potential for profit in this space is enormous, and—given the capacity for the almost ubiquitous application of this technology across virtually all industry areas—the sector is likely to grow significantly in the coming years. In the particular example of Thin Film Electronics' flexible NFC tags, which enable companies to communicate with their customers directly and instantly, the technology even has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in this relationship—creating enormous opportunities for brand management and consumer engagement.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Flexible electronics, packaging, agriculture, food and drink, security, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: