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Nanoelectronics July 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Neuromorphic Sensors

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

Why is this topic significant?

Replicating a natural sense of touch remains one of the ultimate goals for developers of artificial limbs. Recent developments in this field represent a significant step toward that goal.

Description

In May 2018, scientists from Stanford University published the results of their research into artificial sensory nerves that function in much the same way that human sensory nerves function. The nerves sense pressure, process information, and—crucially for any eventual application—can also communicate with the nervous systems of biological species.

The device incorporates dozens of pressure sensors, each of which is capable of modulating its voltage as a function of the applied pressure. A "ring oscillator" then registers these voltage variations, transforming them into electrical pulses that are the input for the third element of the device: the "synaptic transistor." The transistor transforms the electrical pulses into the type of signal that biological systems can interpret. Integration with biological material—enabled by the soft, flexible, and organic materials in use to construct the device—is the key selling point of this technology.

The researchers demonstrated that the device could detect the position of objects moving across the pressure sensor array and correctly identify Braille characters. In an advanced proof-of-concept demonstration of the technology, the researchers combined the device with a cockroach leg, observing that it caused muscles to contract. The researchers state they will look to incorporate different sensors in future iterations of the nerve, enabling the device to register inputs such as texture, position, and more complex pressure measurements.

Implications

An important early application of nanomaterials is in conductive inks for printed-electronics applications, similar to the process used by the Stanford team to create its printed neuromorphic circuit. This development could lead to significant improvements in the development of artificial limbs—potentially enabling people to regain lost senses and interact more fully with their surroundings. For example, users could gain better control over prosthetics, leading to an improved quality of life. The biocompatibility of the materials and the fact that the researchers are already capable of integrating the device with a living organism suggest that the development of a functional prototype for human applications remains a distinct possibility. However, any such commercialization is unlikely to occur in the near future. The device has, to date, had demonstration in a laboratory environment only—corresponding to a technology-readiness level of 4. Consequently, and despite low manufacturing costs, it will require significant additional investment over a sustained period before it can achieve regulatory approval and reach commercial markets.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although the technology may initially aim to replicate existing human senses, it could progress to the extent that it could find use in supplementing or even improving on the thousands of nerve endings in the human body. Such a development would prove truly transformational. Alternatively, the technology could also see application in production of soft robotics—robots that, through material choice and the use of artificial-intelligence operating systems, mimic the movements and adaptability of living organisms. The Stanford device could provide an efficient interface between soft robotics and the surrounding environment.

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: 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health, robotics, prosthetics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

The 3-Nanometer Node and Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography

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

Why is this topic significant?

Continual miniaturization lies at the heart of progress in the semiconductor industry. Recent developments demonstrate that extreme ultraviolet lithography is almost ready to find use in high-volume manufacturing processes.

Description

In May 2018, Samsung announced its intention to introduce its "gate-all-around" (GAA) transistor technology in 2021. The use of this novel transistor design would be at the 3-nanometer (nm) node and would, in principle, replace the fin field-effect transistors (FinFETs) that currently dominate the industry. Before making the switch to GAA transistors in 2021, Samsung announced that its process technology road map includes plans to continue with its FinFET technology—at the 5 nm node in 2019 and at the 4 nm node in 2020.

At the same time, the company also reasserted its plans to begin using extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to begin production at the 7 nm node in the second half of 2018. Such a development would make Samsung the first chipmaker to use the next-generation fabrication technique in a production environment, with key rivals TSMC and GlobalFoundries currently stating that they expect to introduce similar processes in 2019 and Intel stating it will be using the technology as soon as it is ready at an effective cost.

Implications

The recent announcement from Samsung indicates that it is further ahead than its rivals in the commercialization of next-generation transistors and in the implementation of EUV lithography. Indeed, Samsung also appears to be more advanced than many industry commentators previously thought, with EUV techniques generally still several years from use in an industrial setting. The company's commercial advantage is impressive, especially given the number of issues faced by developers of EUV technology during the past decade. The company's development of its own mask-inspection technology—a tool that is not yet available on the market—was key in establishing this lead. However, the fabrication technique is still far from becoming an established method within the semiconductor industry, with a number of technical issues—for example, the lack of protection from particulate contamination or the development of efficient photoresists—remaining unresolved.

Despite Samsung's apparent commercial advantage, the prospect of the company's falling behind its ambitious schedule remains a distinct possibility. Similarly, Samsung's competitors may advance more rapidly than anyone anticipated or, indeed, publicly announced—leveling the playing field and cancelling out Samsung's perceived first-mover advantage.

Impacts/Disruptions

EUV lithography is currently the only means by which the continuation of Moore's law will be achievable using conventional silicon-based electronics. However, given the time and resources already invested in the development of the technology, coupled with the capital expenditure necessary for production, achieving a return on investment will be particularly challenging for many players within this value chain. However, the risks associated with not adopting EUV techniques and falling behind competitors leaves semiconductor manufacturers with little choice but to pursue this technology. Developments in potentially disruptive computing techniques could also curtail the time available to realize return on investment, increasing the pressure on EUV developers. However no such techniques are currently ready to make an impact on the consumer market for computing.

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:

Semiconductor, lithography

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: