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Nanoelectronics February 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Novel Nanofabrication Techniques

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

Why is this topic significant?

Novel manufacturing techniques will be necessary to enable the integration of some nanomaterials into electronic devices. IBM is working on a bottom-up fabrication method that represents a significant step forward in this area.

Description

In October 2018, IBM announced the results of its research into a novel nanofabrication technique that could enable the continuation of Moore's law beyond the 7-nanometer node. The technique uses graphene to place a range of nanomaterials in specific locations on a substrate with unprecedented accuracy and with no chemical contamination.

The steps in the process include:

  • Growth of graphene on a substrate.
  • Etching of the graphene—thus defining the deposition sites.
  • Application of an electric field to the graphene and placement of a solution of the desired nanomaterial on top of the substrate. The electric field attracts the nanomaterial to the surface of the substrate.
  • Etching of the graphene and any postprocessing necessary to fully integrate the nanomaterials into the device.

This process is, simultaneously, both top down and bottom up, resulting in structures with nanoscale resolution on areas greater than 1 square millimeter. The IBM researchers are investigating the use of this technique to fabricate light emitters and light detectors directly on chips.

Implications

IBM's new nanofabrication technique could revolutionize the large-scale fabrication of nanoscale devices. One particularly attractive feature of the method is its flexibility—the only limiting factor for functionality is the range of nanomaterials that are suitable for use. For example, the technique could find use in tailoring the spectral properties of optoelectronic devices simply by switching the nanomaterial at the surface of the substrate. Similarly, the method, if in multiple steps, could enable the fabrication of on-chip light sensors that can detect several distinct wavelength ranges simultaneously. However, this research is yet insufficiently mature to find use in commercial processes, and introducing solution-based nanomaterials into device manufacture could prove problematic. Furthermore, in addition to improving certain aspects of the technique in-house—such as upscaling the method for wafer-scale production—IBM will also be reliant on third parties' making progress on material standardization before it can use the method in a widespread, reproducible, and industrial-scale manner.

Impacts/Disruptions

Despite the potential offered by this technique, it will not affect commercial fabrication processes in the near future. The highly established top-down lithographic techniques that currently dominate the semiconductor industry are likely to remain in place for at least the next several years. Indeed, extensions of these techniques—such as extreme ultraviolet lithography—will start to see commercial use in the coming year and will likely dominate fabrication processes in the medium term. However, as nanomaterials become more important in the construction of devices, techniques such as IBM's will become more prominent. In the first instance, these bottom-up techniques will complement the top-down alternatives, contributing specific steps in a global fabrication process. However, in time, bottom-up techniques could go on to dominate the fabrication of electronic devices.

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, sensors, nanofabrication, materials

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Smart Contact Lenses

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

Why is this topic significant?

The integration of nanoscale electronics with everyday objects is advancing at pace. Recent research demonstrates how smart contact lenses could affect the field of ophthalmology.

Description

In November 2018, imec, in collaboration with Ghent University and SEED (a contact-lens manufacturer), announced the results of its research into incorporating electronic components—including light-emitting diodes, microchips, radio-frequency antennas, and stretchable thin-film interconnects—directly into contact lenses.

Crucially, the base material of the device is a hydrogel (a gel comprising a polymer network and absorbed water) that confers a higher level of biocompatibility than that of other lens-based wearable technologies that contain no water. Electronic devices that integrate into contact lenses are desirable because they are noninvasive and enable continuous functionality in a manner that does not affect the life of the user.

The researchers plan to investigate ways to prolong the power autonomy of the wirelessly powered contact lenses. The researchers plan also to investigate the integration of microtransducers that can stretch along with the underlying substrate of the lenses and the further development of substrates that enable health-based monitoring applications.

Implications

Hydrogel-based contact lenses with integrated electronic components could enable a wide range of novel and disruptive applications. For example, incorporating nanoscale sensors in the lenses could enable continuous monitoring of a wide range of bio indicators and potentially help doctors diagnose a variety of ocular diseases. Conversely, the lens could also find use as a vehicle for drug delivery, leading to effective and noninvasive treatment for a wide range of conditions.

From a commercial perspective, the technology has considerable potential. The high premium that consumers, health systems, and insurance companies are willing to pay for products that improve patient outcomes and reduce overall treatment costs, coupled with potential mass-market applications and the innovative nature of the product itself, could mean that bringing such a device to market could prove highly lucrative. Indeed, depending on the precise application and whether the technology can efficiently scale up to mass production, relatively low fabrication costs could lead to disposable products—increasing demand and ensuring long-term revenue streams.

Impacts/Disruptions

Approximately 130 million people currently wear contact lenses, principally for vision correction but also for aesthetic and therapeutic reasons. That such a large market for similar products already exists suggests that any barriers that link to consumer acceptance of the technology are likely to prove negligible in comparison with barriers for some other forms of wearable technology. The potential impact of such a device in the field of ophthalmology is immense. The ability to diagnose and treat ocular diseases using noninvasive technology could revolutionize the approach taken by medical professionals in a wide range of cases. Furthermore, potential low costs could enable the distribution of such devices in developing economies where ready access to quality eye care is not universally available. In the longer term, such devices could perceivably find use in the burgeoning field of human augmentation, potentially leading to superior physical or cognitive abilities.

Scale of Impact

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

Health, consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: