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Nanoelectronics September 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Nanoelectronic Smart Bandages

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

Why is this topic significant?

Nanoelectronics already plays a pivotal role within the integrated-circuit industry. However, recent research demonstrates how the technology can support a wide range of other applications, such as smart bandages for the health-care sector.

Description

In April 2017, researchers at Swansea University's Institute of Life Science announced the results of their research into smart bandages—a wound dressing containing nanoelectronic sensors that can detect an injury's healing progress and communicate related information back to doctors. The bandage would essentially link the wound directly into a 5G infrastructure in real time. Through a smartphone, doctors could access this information and also access other patient data such as location or activity.

A linear log of healing, in addition to these other data, enables clinicians to provide tailored medical advice for the patient. The multidisciplinary project involves experts in nanotechnology who fabricate the sensors and a team specializing in 3D printing that incorporates the devices into bandages. The team announced in May 2017 that it hopes to start patient-based trials of the product within 12 months, stating in a Swansea University press release that the trials would take place in southwest Wales. This research forms part of a wider, £1.3 billion scheme to create a 5G test hub for digital innovation in and around the Swansea area.

Implications

If successful, the Swansea University innovation and others like it could revolutionize global health care and positively affect patient outcomes. A real-time analysis of wound healing would enable medical professionals to deliver the very best in health care while simultaneously reducing the burden on health services.

The multidisciplinary aspect of the project—which involves nanotechnology researchers, biochemists, 3D-printing experts, health-care professionals, 5G-networking technicians, and leaders in business innovation—is an important feature of this development. Increasingly, such a convergent approach will be necessary if researchers are to deliver truly innovative products and applications. Indeed, the 3D-printing techniques that the team employs are likely to prove crucial to any long-term commercial success that may result from this work—as will cost reduction to make the technology affordable for health services that will ultimately form the market for these products.

Impacts/Disruptions

The term precision medicine encapsulates far more than smart bandages and wound healing. The use of genomic analyses to determine, for example, which drugs would prove most effective for a particular patient is likely to have an enormous impact on patient care. That nanoelectronic devices could contribute to such patient stratification is perhaps unsurprising given the ubiquity of the technology and the wide range of other applications in which it is finding use. The market for health nanoelectronics, driven by aging populations and enabled by technological progress, is likely to grow and will play an increasingly important role in the provision of health care in the coming years.

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:

Sensors, health care, network communications, 3D printing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

IBM Nanosheet

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

Why is this topic significant?

Advances in semiconductor technology will be necessary if the integrated-circuit industry is to support the intense computing requirements of the future. Recent IBM research represents a significant step toward commercialization at the 5-nanometer node.

Description

In June 2017, an IBM-led collaboration, which also includes GlobalFoundries and Samsung, released the results of its research into silicon nanosheet transistors that could enable the fabrication of chips at the 5-nanometer node. IBM claims that this development represents "the first in the industry to demonstrate the feasibility to design and fabricate stacked nanosheet devices with electrical properties superior to FinFET [fin field-effect transistor] architecture." The collaborators also state that their new process could yield fingernail-size chips that contain 30 billion transistors—considerably more than the 20 billion transistors on the 7-nanometer-node test chip IBM developed in 2015.

IBM invested more than a decade of research into nanosheet semiconductor technology before achieving its recent success at the 5-nanometer node. The ultimate breakthrough came as a result of a fundamental shift in chip architecture. By transitioning from the vertical FinFET structures that find use in today's electronic devices to horizontal layers of silicon nanosheets, IBM demonstrated the opening of what it terms "a fourth 'gate' on the transistor that enabled electrical signals to pass through and between other transistors on a chip."

The collaboration's change in architecture and the concomitant increase in chip density yield significant advantages. A 40% enhancement of performance at fixed power—or 75% power savings at identical levels of performance—is what 5-nanometer technology achieves, as against the state-of-the-art 10-nanometer technology currently on the market.

Implications

First and foremost, IBM's recent research provides evidence that 5-nanometer silicon chips are possible, that the chips exhibit significant performance advantages over current state-of-the-art technology, and that their commercialization in the midterm future is a distinct possibility. The performance advantages afforded by integrated circuits based on 5-nanometer chips will be significant. For example, smartphone batteries could potentially last two to three times longer than they do at present because of more energy-efficient processing.

IBM (alongside its partners) is in a perfect position to capitalize on its industry-leading status. The company is, in its own words, "aggressively pursuing" novel architectures and materials that will enable it to move ahead of the curve in terms of introducing (and commercializing) industry-leading technologies. By planning several technology nodes down the line, IBM is attempting to ensure its mid to long-term position as a market leader within the integrated-circuit industry.

Impacts/Disruptions

This development represents a substantial step forward for the entire semiconductor industry, and the technology is likely to become an industry standard once the 7-nanometer node and FinFET technology runs its course. Moreover, the computing power enabled by these integrated circuits will facilitate a wide range of data-intensive applications—from cognitive and cloud computing to virtual-reality systems and next-generation mobile devices. However, as with the majority of other novel semiconductor technologies, the lag between discovery and commercialization is likely to be about ten years.

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: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Semiconductor, consumer electronics, cloud computing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: