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Nanoelectronics December 2019/January 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

2019: The Year in Review

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

Nanoelectronics is one of the most important global industries, underpinning virtually all modern infrastructure and driving progress in the health, energy, and communications sectors (among others). It is difficult to overstate the impact that nanoelectronics technologies will continue to have at all levels of society for the foreseeable future. In such a broad-ranging, fast-paced, and dynamic area, major developments—from fundamental advances in materials science, to large-scale mergers and acquisitions—are inevitable. This Viewpoints addresses some of the key nanoelectronics developments that occurred in 2019, highlighting their potential commercial impact and outlining how the field may continue to develop in the coming years.


Several important breakthroughs that are likely to accelerate the widespread commercialization of graphene for electronics applications occurred in 2019. For example, AIXTRON—a major manufacturer of equipment for the semiconductor industry and a member of the Graphene Flagship—showcased two new systems that can enable cost-effective and large-scale graphene fabrication using chemical-vapor deposition. The first system employs roll-to-roll techniques (and has a fabrication capacity of up to 20,000 square meters per year); the other can deposit graphene directly onto silicon wafers. Also in 2019, Graphenea—a leading supplier of graphene-related products—started operating a new foundry and began serving customers. The new foundry service enables clients to order custom-designed graphene circuits on wafers of up to 6 inches in diameter. Academic researchers or smaller companies without access to the same resources that the major electronics players have are most likely to benefit from this new foundry's service as they develop novel graphene-based products and devices. Another important advance includes a product release from Emberion—a Graphene Flagship spin-out—that is looking to commercialize ultrasensitive photodetectors that expand the wavelength-detection range in comparison with that of current-generation products. The low-cost nature of Emberion's device makes an extremely wide range of applications—from noninvasive medical imaging to product verification and quality control—more economically viable. Researchers also made a significant breakthrough using another carbon-based nanomaterial in 2019. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists were able to demonstrate a fully functioning 16-bit microprocessor that they fabricated from over 14,000 carbon-nanotube field-effect transistors. Crucially, the researchers employed standard fabrication techniques that commonly find use in the semiconductor industry, potentially reducing the barriers to commercializing graphene-semiconductor technology.

Quantum dots is another nanomaterial that has come to the fore in the field of nanoelectronics in recent years. Several important developments in quantum-dot commercialization occurred in 2019. For example, Nanosys announced the completion of a multi-million-dollar investment that expands its quantum-dot production capacity to over 50 tons per annum (more than doubling its previous capacity). Such an increase in capacity is necessary to meet the demands of the display industry, which uses the materials to improve color quality in liquid-crystal displays (over 100 unique display products now include Nanosys materials). Indeed, in 2019, Nanosys also announced record shipments of its materials that were 50% up on 2018 figures.

Transistor Scaling

The drive to fabricate smaller electronics components continues to sustain the semiconductor industry. In 2019, several developments provide evidence that this situation is set to continue for the foreseeable future. For example, in August 2019, Intel began shipping processors with features at the 10-nanometer scale in high volume and announced that its first 7-nanometer-scale products should be available by 2021. Similarly, in anticipation of high demand for 7-nanometer- and 5-nanometer-scale products, TSMC announced that it would increase its forecast 2019 capital expenditure by 36% (to between $14 billion and $15 billion). Much of the investment will fund the purchase of the extreme-ultraviolet-fabrication systems that are necessary to manufacture next-generation chips with such small transistor dimensions. Looking further to the future, multiple reports indicate that in 2019, TSMC purchased 30 hectares of land in Taiwan, upon which it intends to build a fabrication facility for 3-nanometer-scale technology, thus suggesting a degree of certainty that integrated circuits with such small features are commercially viable. In 2019, Samsung announced that an early version of a product-design kit for 3-nanometer processes is ready for its customers to use. This announcement is significant because the 3-nanometer node is the point at which Samsung intends to begin its switch from the dominant "FinFET" architecture technology to "Gate-All-Around" transistors.

Quantum Computing

Several highly important developments in the field of quantum computing also occurred in 2019. Chief among these developments was perhaps Google's supposed demonstration of quantum supremacy—claiming that it had performed a calculation in approximately 3 minutes that would take 10,000 years using conventional techniques. IBM directly disputed the claim, stating that it would take fewer than three days to perform the calculation using its most powerful computers. Even if IBM's claim is true, the Google development is impressive, and demonstrates significant progress within the field. Also in 2019, IBM released a commercial quantum computer that can operate outside the laboratory. IBM—in collaboration with Barclays—demonstrated the practical applications for quantum computing by publishing its research into using the technique for optimizing transaction settlements in the banking industry.

D-Wave—the company that has perhaps made the most commercial progress in quantum computing to date—announced in 2019 a preview of its next-generation quantum-computing platform, claiming that this platform will result in significant improvements in performance. The new system will contain more than 5,000 qubits—more than double the 2,000 qubits in its current system (that Los Alamos National Laboratory purchased in 2019). IonQ—the quantum-computing hardware-and-software start-up founded in 2015—also announced major advances in 2019. The company performed the first quantum simulation of a water molecule. IonQ also participated in a funding round worth $55 million, with companies such as Samsung, Google, and Amazon investing.

Memory and Data Storage

Data storage is an important component of the nanoelectronics industry, and continual innovation is necessary in order to maintain a commercial advantage in this field. For example, in 2019, SK Hynix developed a 16-gigabit dynamic-random-access-memory (DRAM) chip. This device, which SK Hynix fabricated using 10-nanometer processes, exhibits particularly high chip density but, crucially in terms of overall cost, requires no extreme-ultraviolet lithography in production. Despite this development in DRAM manufacturing, the company was hit hard by a fall in profits in 2019 (third-quarter profits were down 93% in comparison with profits in the same period in 2018). Falling DRAM prices are the main cause of the company's loss of profits and will affect SK Hynix's plans to invest further in manufacturing facilities. Micron—another major vendor of DRAM devices—was far more successful in managing the impact of falling prices in 2019; its stock increased in value by more than 30% throughout the year. Also in 2019, Samsung launched a new range of all-in-one memory packages for smartphones that combine both DRAM and data storage. Samsung claims that the integrated devices will provide "high performance memory for mainstream handsets in a cost-effective form-factor." DRAM technology saw a further boost at Samsung in 2019 when the company announced a new 12-layer three-dimensional stack of chips that occupies the same volume that 8 layers currently occupy. Samsung plans to manufacture 24-gigabyte DRAM via this technology. However, like all emerging technologies, it is likely to be expensive and suitable for only select applications for the time being. Other significant developments in 2019: Avalanche raised over $33 million to accelerate the commercialization of its persistent static-random-access-memory technology; 4DS Memory, in collaboration with Imec and Western Digital, announced that testing on a new generation of resistive random-access-memory (ReRAM) products is complete and that development work will continue into 2020; and NTU Singapore and GlobalFoundries announced that they will enter into a $90 million partnership to demonstrate a new ReRAM technology on 12-inch wafers. Two more exotic data-storage developments emerged from Microsoft in 2019. The first involved the company's storing an entire Superman film on a piece of glass using three-dimensional etching processes. The second involved a collaboration with the University of Washington to demonstrate using DNA for data-storage applications. Here, the researchers were able to build an autonomous system that could both encode data in, and read data from, DNA-based genetic material.

Business Developments

Several significant business developments occurred in 2019 that will contribute to shaping the future of the nanoelectronics industry in the coming years. For example, in July 2019, Rigetti Computing announced that it had purchased QxBranch—a quantum-computing and data-analytics software start-up. This acquisition expands Rigetti's ability to provide solutions at a software level, in addition to its existing hardware offerings. German materials giant Merck also made acquisitions in 2019. In September 2019, the company purchased Intermolecular—a company specializing in advanced materials for the electronics industry—for $62 million. Just one month later, Merck acquired Versum Materials—another electronics-materials company—for a sum of $5.8 billion. These acquisitions represent a continuing practice at Merck to develop its electronics portfolio and transform itself into a major player in the electronics field. Applied Materials—a major semiconductor OEM—also made a significant acquisition in 2019 when it purchased Kokusai Electric for $2.2 billion. By combining Kokusai's high-productivity batch-processing systems and services with its existing portfolio, Applied Materials will significantly expand its offering to its customers. LG Chem purchased DuPont's soluble organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) intellectual property and infrastructure in a deal reportedly worth $175 million. This purchase could indicate that LG foresees that inkjet printing will be the primary fabrication route for OLED products.

An additional important business development from 2019 includes an acquisition that did not occur. Bain Capital and AMS made separate bids for OSRAM, the Austrian sensor company. After AMS's unsuccessful bid (worth $4.9 billion), the company announced that it plans to explore further routes to purchasing OSRAM. Additional bids from Bain—or merger options—remain a distinct possibility. These attempts to purchase OSRAM follow on from the divestiture of OSRAM's North American services business Sylvania Lighting Solutions in January 2019—part of a concerted effort to focus more on high-tech photonics products and solutions.

Look for These Developments in 2020

  • Samsung aims to launch a smartphone that contains graphene-based battery technology, thus enabling particularly fast charge times.
  • Flexenable's pioneering bezel-less organic liquid-crystal-display technology will enter into production in 2020.
  • Following an increase in its capex budget for 2019, TSMC will maintain this higher level of infrastructure investment in 2020 (to fund, for example, the construction of a 3-nanometer fabrication facility in Taiwan).
  • TSMC is also preparing to launch its new 5-nanometer process in the first half of 2020. This technology, which TSMC fabricated using extreme ultraviolet lithography, is 15% faster and consumes 30% less power than does the 7-nanometer equivalent.
  • Intel will make efforts to catch up with demand for its 10-nanometer chips, before aiming to progress to 7-nanometer technology in 2021.
  • ASML expects to sell 35 of its latest extreme-ultraviolet-lithography systems in 2020 (with a capacity to sell a further 45 to 50 systems in 2021). Each system commands a price of approximately €130 million.
  • The dispute between Google and IBM about the achievement of quantum supremacy by the former is likely to continue into 2020. Meanwhile, other organizations may publish further examples of quantum supremacy.
  • D-Wave's new 5,000-qubit machine will be available for deployment at customer sites and in D-Wave's cloud service.
  • Further attempts will develop to buy out the major lighting-and-photonics-technology player OSRAM.
  • After a November 2019 announcement that Nanoco is entering into discussions with potential buyers, the company could find itself subject to a so-called liquidity event in 2020.