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Nanoelectronics November 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Thread-Based Transistors

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

Why is this topic significant?

Flexible transistors are not easy to fabricate. Novel flexible devices integrated onto a thread substrate offer one potential solution, enabling a wide range of, for example, wearable applications.

Description

In August 2019, scientists at Tufts University published the results of their research into thread-based transistors. The team fabricated a semiconducting surface by coating a linen thread with carbon nanotubes. Thin gold wires attached to the thread acted as the source and the drain, with a third adjacent wire (the gate) controlling the overall flow of current and completing the structure of a traditional transistor—a world first using a thread substrate. A thin, flexible, and stretchable silica-nanoparticle-based gel separates the gate from the wire. The scientists formed simple logic circuits using the transistors. The technology is highly scalable and does not require clean rooms in the fabrication process—contributing to potentially low manufacturing costs. The research group has previous experience in developing thread-based sensors (that find use in measuring temperature, glucose concentrations, and mechanical strain). This innovation will enable devices using equally flexible logic circuits. Indeed, in lab-based studies, these circuits found use as sensors for detecting sodium and ammonium ions (which are indicators of cardiovascular health as well as liver and kidney function).

Implications

Thread-based electronic devices are suitably thin, soft, and flexible to enable a wide range of applications that would be otherwise difficult to support. Flexible components are broadly more biocompatible than their rigid counterparts and could potentially enable doctors to track a broad range of biomarkers simultaneously. Initially implementing this technology would likely involve incorporating a device into textiles. When the technology matures, researchers could also target medical applications. Where standard flexible electronics generally involve printing conductive materials on a flexible substrate, this device is capable of conforming and stretching with biological substrates or matrices such as skin, heart, or even brain tissue. Implanting devices based on the Tufts University team's work for diagnostic applications could lead to a range of performance advantages over those of existing monitoring technologies. Alternatively, the device could also find use in sutures, providing added functionality to a nontechnical application. Manufacturing thread-based devices is potentially highly scalable, further enhancing the commercial potential of this technology. The researchers will now likely focus on improving the performance of their devices and tailoring the design for specific applications.

Impacts/Disruptions

Monitoring health and wellness characteristics is becoming increasingly important from both a medical and a commercial standpoint. Introducing novel bioelectronic techniques, devices, and materials provides doctors with previously inaccessible data sets. Meanwhile a whole industry (still in its infancy) is developing around wearable devices. However, this innovation could also enable significant progress in the more general fields of flexible electronics and the Internet of Things. For example, the creation of "soft electronics" (systems that contain no rigid components whatsoever) could lead to a wide range of applications that would be otherwise very difficult or impossible to realize.

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

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Flexible electronics, wearables, health, bioelectronics, Internet of Things

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Room-Temperature Quantum Computing

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

Why is this topic significant?

The field of quantum computing, and particularly the commercialization of the technology, is developing rapidly. However, technical challenges dictate that users (generally, governments or large companies) require major resources either to purchase or to develop devices. Recent research demonstrates the potential for developing room-temperature quantum computers, reducing some of the barriers to access for more general users.

Description

In August 2019, Archer Exploration announced a breakthrough in its research into quantum-computing systems. The company can now fabricate components for qubits that operate at room temperature, representing a major advance within this field. The company's researchers isolated a single carbon-based qubit before precisely positioning it on a silicon wafer. The qubits have diameters measuring only tens of nanometers, leading to the requirement for high precision in their positioning in order to construct a fully functioning and scalable quantum-chip device. The ability to determine exact qubit locations provides Archer with a significant technical and commercial advantage from the outset and significantly reduces commercial and technical risks. Archer intends to continue developing this system by integrating individual components and fabricating a first proof-of-principle quantum-computing chip, thus enabling the company to enter into the next phase of commercial development. Archer licenses the technology from the University of Sydney—one of the leading academic players in quantum computing and responsible for several of the major breakthroughs in the field. In addition to pursuing direct sales, Archer will also pursue sublicensing deals with commercial partners (both hardware and software manufacturers) that have the resources and distribution channels to maximize the technology's impact.

Implications

Archer Exploration is addressing two key challenges in the quantum-computing industry: scalability and room-temperature operation. The research represents a potential route to one day enabling sufficiently powerful devices that can function at elevated temperatures. Removing the need for cryogenic cooling systems would reduce the final technology's complexity and price, thereby making it more appealing to a wider range of users. Using silicon substrates—potentially enabling integration with conventional integrated circuits—further enhances both the commercial potential of this technology and its accessibility to the general public. Where government research agencies, major technology corporations, and some select academic institutions currently dominate the field of quantum computing, enabling smaller companies and standard users to access such devices could potentially lead to a technological revolution similar in scale to that facilitated by the silicon transistor.

Impacts/Disruptions

Quantum computing could prove transformative by enabling users to address complex problems that would otherwise be impossible by means of conventional systems. Although the exact areas where quantum computing will make the biggest impact are difficult to predict precisely, potential applications include cryptography, drug design, artificial intelligence, or financial modeling. However, despite this promise, quantum computing remains a medium-term prospect that will not displace, or even compete with, silicon technology in the near future.

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:

Computing, defense, cryptography, artificial intelligence, big data, pharmaceuticals, finance

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: