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Nanoelectronics December 2017/January 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

2017: The Year in Review

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

Nanoscale materials and processes lie at the heart of the electronics industry, which, in turn, underpins virtually every industrial sector. Novel and emerging nanotechnologies promise to surpass the limits of what is currently available on the market, enabling gains in performance, price, and size reduction. Indeed, the pace at which the field is developing appears to be accelerating, with a number of crucial technological and commercial advances occurring in 2017. This Viewpoints discusses some of these important developments.

Materials and Processes

Materials developments drive innovation in the field of nanoelectronics. For example, 2017 saw several interesting quantum-dot developments. Nanoco—the leading developer and manufacturer of cadmium-free quantum dots—received its first commercial order from Wah Hong Industrial Corporation—one of the largest manufacturers of optical films for the display industry. Reportedly Wah Hong planned to have Nanoco materials "appearing in the international display market during the second half of the 2017 calendar year." Nanoco announced this sale just two months before the European Commission published its decision to prohibit the use of cadmium in all televisions and displays from October 2019—a major boost for Nanoco given that the company possesses the majority of the intellectual property for cadmium-free quantum dots. Also in 2017, researchers at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced a new world record for efficiency in quantum-dot solar cells. The team used lead sulfide quantum dots to achieve an efficiency of 13.4%—a significant improvement on the previous record of 12%.

Several developments involving other nanomaterials that could affect the commercialization of nanoelectronics also occurred in 2017. For example, LG Chem announced that it began mass production of carbon nanotubes from a new facility in South Korea. The factory—that reportedly cost $21 million—will eventually have a production capacity of 400 tons per year when it is fully operational in 2018.

In addition to materials advances, progress with novel fabrication techniques could also accelerate the commercialization of nanoelectronics. In 2017, Canon announced that it would deliver the world's first nanoimprint replica-mask-manufacturing equipment for mass production to a leading mask supplier. This equipment uses relatively inexpensive nanoimprint technology to "faithfully transcribe a pattern from an expensive master mask to a replica mask blank in a short amount of time," potentially significantly reducing fabrication costs in the semiconductor industry.

The use of DNA for data-storage applications also came to the fore in 2017. Researchers from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center publicized a novel coding system that could enable the storage of 215 petabytes of data using a single gram of DNA. This advance represents a hundredfold improvement on the previous highest-performing technology.

Transistor Scaling

The miniaturization of transistors underpins much of the progress in the field of nanoelectronics. In 2017, most of the major players in the semiconductor industry announced significant developments that are likely to lead to more densely packed transistors' finding use in commercial electronic devices. For example, Intel announced that it can now fabricate chips that contain over 100 million transistors per square millimeter (mm2), marking the first achievement of this impressive (albeit arbitrary) milestone. This technology falls under the company's drive toward the 10-nanometer node and compares favorably against competitors' figures (for example, Samsung: 51.6 million transistors/mm2; TSMC: 48 million transistors/mm2). Intel announced that it planned to ship its first 10-nanometer processors toward the end of 2017 before ramping up production to full capacity in 2018. Also at the 10-nanometer node, Intel confirmed a collaboration with ARM in 2017. The two players—and, to some extent, competitors—will partner on the development of 10-nanometer FinFET (fin field-effect transistor) chips. Intel also announced plans to invest in excess of $7 billion to complete a semiconductor fabrication facility in Arizona, which will find use in 7-nanometer manufacturing processes.

In 2017, IBM announced progress in its early attempt to develop gate-all-around transistors at the 5-nanometer node. According to an IBM press release, the company, in collaboration with GlobalFoundries and Samsung, "developed an industry-first process to build silicon nanosheet transistors that will enable 5 nanometer chips." At this scale, IBM could potentially fabricate chips with performance gains of up to 40% over current 10-nanometer technology. Going one step further, IBM scientists also announced in 2017 the fabrication of the world's first carbon-nanotube transistor that outperforms silicon-based equivalents. This development could prove highly disruptive in the medium to long term as silicon technology approaches its physical limitations.

In 2017, the Taiwanese integrated-circuit player TSMC announced that it is in the process of constructing the world's first semiconductor plant capable of fabrication at the 3-nanometer node. TSMC, currently the chief chip supplier for Apple, hopes that the foundry—likely to cost $20 billion and be online by 2022—will ensure that it retains the tech giant's custom. TSMC already runs a 5-nanometer facility and has other infrastructure at the same location in Taiwan, effectively creating a hub with all the associated advantages of a comprehensive supply chain. Also in 2017, Samsung announced that it is ready to begin mass production of 8-nanometer chips, signaling Samsung's intentions to grow its market share within the semiconductor-fabrication space.

Quantum Computing

In recent years, D-Wave—as a result of its rapid progress and its having the only commercially available quantum computer—dominated industry and media coverage within this field. In 2017, the Canadian company (which works with a different type of technology from that of the majority of other players, making direct comparisons between its system and those of competitors difficult) placed a new 2,000-qubit system on the market, offering twice the number of qubits of the company's previous offering. D-Wave claims that its new system outperforms classical computers using several objective measures—from computation time to energy use. In 2017, D-Wave also announced the release of open-source quantum-computing software and an online simulator, potentially accelerating progress within the field of quantum computing and helping to cement the company's place as an industry leader. However, several other major players are also making significant progress in this field. For example, in 2017, Intel announced that it delivered a 17-qubit test chip to the Dutch research firm QuTech, highlighting how important cutting-edge fabrication techniques will be for developing quantum-computing hardware. IBM announced its 20-qubit chip in 2017, in addition to publishing the results of its research into the use of semiconductor nanowires for quantum-computing applications. Meanwhile, Google also made progress with its quantum-computing systems, producing a 9-by-1 array of qubits and testing its fabrication technology on a 2-by-3 array of qubits.

Data Storage

The data-storage sector appears to be at a crossroads, with emerging and disruptive materials and approaches vying to compete commercially with established technologies such as flash memory. However, flash memory remains dominant, and in 2017, IBM rolled out an upgraded system that takes advantage of the third dimension, stacking the memory cells and enabling the storage of three times as much data in the same physical space as previously. Intel also announced progress with its 3D data-storage technology based on phase-change memory cells, releasing more "Optane 3D X-Point" products—that it developed in collaboration with Micron—in 2017. Intel's technology—a direct competitor to flash and DRAM (dynamic random-access memory)—now finds use in a range of commercially available PCs in addition to the memory sticks. An alternative data-storage technology—ST-MRAM—received a boost in 2017 when a leading developer (Spin Transfer Technologies) signed an agreement with Tokyo Electron to share resources and expertise, with a view to accelerating the commercialization of the technology. Another promising data-storage technology based on the use of carbon nanotubes—NRAM—is generating conflicting opinions about its readiness to penetrate the market for memory solutions. Nantero—a leading developer of carbon-nanotube data-storage technology—recently received millions of dollars of investment from Dell Technologies Capital (the combined corporate investment subsidiary of Dell and EMC). However, since the announcement of this additional funding in December 2016, no further updates on progress, either technical or commercial, have been forthcoming from Nantero, casting doubts about when, and if, this technology will ever be able to compete with more commercially mature alternatives.

Business Developments

Several major acquisitions, mergers, and new partnerships in 2017 demonstrate just how dynamic the nanoelectronics industry is at present. For example, in 2017, Toshiba agreed to sell 60% of its chip-manufacturing business—the world's second-largest producer of NAND memory chips—to a consortium that includes Apple, Seagate Technology, Kingston Technology, Dell, and Bain Capital for a fee of $14 billion. This acquisition marks a shift in Apple's business strategy, with the company previously appearing to be reluctant to invest the significant funds that it has at its disposal. Perhaps of just as much interest is an acquisition that did not occur: In 2017, citing national-security concerns, the US administration blocked the sale of Lattice Semiconductor to Chinese investors. The executive order to block the $1.3 billion deal took advantage of little-used legislation and could herald the beginning of a period when, in the United States, foreign acquisitions are blocked for political reasons more often. Also in the semiconductor industry, Qualcomm announced that it was ending its production partnership with Samsung Electronics, opting instead for a new collaboration with TSMC to produce its next-generation 7-nanometer chips. Following a similar move from Apple, Samsung has lost a significant volume of business, creating concern about the company's foundry business.

Beyond the semiconductor market, Osram—one of the leading players in the lighting industry—announced the acquisition of LED Engin for an undisclosed sum. The purchase will open up new commercial opportunities for Osram while also removing a competitor from the market and, presumably, giving it access to potentially lucrative intellectual property. Meanwhile, in the field of quantum dots, Dotz Nano announced the success of its latest funding round, attracting $1.5 million of financial support. This funding round comes on the back of Dotz Nano's emerging capabilities in integrating graphene quantum dots into polymeric materials and its work in developing applications for the material. Remaining with graphene, Versarian—the engineering solutions company—in 2017 acquired Cambridge Graphene, a University of Cambridge spin-out that develops graphene-based inks. Versarian—which already owns the University of Manchester graphene spin-out 2-DTech—has the potential to reach a broader market than Cambridge Graphene could reach on its own, in principle accelerating the commercialization of the company's technology. Another major 2017 business development included GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK's) $40 million investment in Saluda Medical—assisting the introduction of nanoelectronics into the health market. This investment continues GSK's ongoing interest in the underdeveloped but potentially lucrative field of bioelectronics applications.

Look for These Developments in 2018

  • GlobalFoundries will further expand its Malta, New York, Fab 8 facility in order to support the ramping up of volume production of its 14-nanometer technology.
  • Intel should commence large-volume shipments of its 10-nanometer technology, with a view to introducing its 7-nanometer chips in 2021–22.
  • The first 7-nanometer test chips could begin to emerge from players with particularly advanced fabrication techniques. GlobalFoundries appears to be one of the more likely contenders at this stage and, if successful, would be the first company to bypass a full node.
  • Samsung is also signaling its intent in chip fabrication and will develop a 7-nanometer mass-production foundry process in 2018.
  • To support the development of 7-nanometer technology, extreme ultraviolet lithography will start to find use in foundries and more research facilities.
  • ARM's new high-performance, high-efficiency central-processing units' "Cortex A-75" and "Cortex A-55" chips will find use in mobile products.
  • Following a recent partnership, Truly Semiconductors will begin mass production of FlexEnable's organic liquid-crystal-display technology.
  • ThinFilm Electronics will use recently purchased printing equipment to mass-produce electronic-article surveillance tags for commercial applications.
  • NRAM memory technology—based on carbon nanotubes—could see initial use in commercial products as a result of Fujitsu's drive to bring Nantero's technology to market.