The first generation of CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) chips were based on a design process with lithographic features defining regions inside the transistors of 10 micrometres or more. The chips in most products in use today have features more than a hundred times smaller – just 65 nanometres (nm) or 90nm, approximately 1,000 times less than the width of a human hair. That may be small, but in the competitive semiconductor industry, where size is of high importance, it is not small enough.
A reduction in minimum feature size means more transistors per chip, more transistors means more computing power, and more power means electronic systems – mobile phones, PCs, satellites, vehicles, etc. – will gain in functionality and performance. And, because the processed silicon wafers out of which chips are made are expensive (setting up a factory to produce them costs €3 billion) using less of them to do more means the trend toward such devices becoming cheaper can continue.
“The semiconductor industry is in the business of selling square millimetres of silicon. So, by cramming more transistors into a chip you’re delivering more capacity, more functionality and more computing power for the same price. It’s why things like mobile phones, LCD TVs and DVD players are coming down in price,” notes Gilles Thomas, the director of R&D Cooperative Programs at STMicroelectronics in Crolles, France, the world’s fifth biggest semiconductor manufacturer and Europe’s largest semiconductor supplier.Taking the ‘O’ out of CMOS
A follow-up project, called Pullnano and coordinated by Thomas, is currently working on developing nodes as small as 32nm and even 22nm. At that diminutive size, semiconductor manufacturing is continuing to test Moore’s Law, an assumption spelled out by Intel co-founder Gordon E Moore, in 1965, predicting that the number of transistors that can be cost-effectively placed on a chip will double approximately every two years.
“The work of NanoCMOS and Pullnano has moved in that direction, although there is probably 12 or 15 more years to go before we hit a practical and economical limit on how small the nodes can become,” Thomas explains.
At the 32nm scale, in particular, quantum mechanical effects come into play in a big way. One major problem the Pullnano researchers have solved is reducing current leakage at the logic gate by using a hafnium compound-based insulator with higher dielectric strength than traditional silicon dioxide.
“We’ve achieved a 100-fold reduction in gate leakage,” Thomas says, noting that it is the first time the oxide – the ’O’ in CMOS – has been replaced with a different material.Semiconductor makers’ “million-dollar question”
“At that point it would not be economical or practical to go smaller, even though, in theory, it would be possible,” he says.
Even so, there is still some time before that point is reached. STMicroelectronics is due to start sampling the 45nm node semiconductors that the NanoCMOS project helped develop from next year, with a view to placing electronic systems using them in consumers’ hands by 2009.
By 2011, the Switzerland-headquartered company expects to start commercialising the 32nm node semiconductors being developed in the Pullnano initiative, with a view to developing a commercially viable 22nm process a couple of years after that.
“The 45nm process has already been validated through the production of an SRAM [static random access memory] chip, which we use to benchmark the performance of each generation. We will do the same with the 32nm process,” Thomas says.
NanoCMOS, which involved 20 partners, and Pullnano, which involves 38 partners, have helped give Europe an edge in semiconductor manufacturing, suggests Thomas, although he notes that the highly competitive sector remains dominated by American and Asian giants such as Intel and Samsung. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for future growth, even as chips become cheaper.
Consumers will be the biggest beneficiary of the continuation of this miniaturisation trend. The economies of scale created within the $260 billion (+/- €183 billion) semiconductor industry have put electronics within the reach of the masses as the cost per transistor has fallen 2,500 times over the last 25 years. This is thanks to shrinking feature sizes and to increases in transistor manufacturing capacity by a factor of some 30,000.
“Just look at computer memory, in the early 1970s one megabyte cost more than a house, now it costs less than a piece of candy,” Thomas notes.
Christian Nielsen | alfa
Five developments for improved data exploitation
19.04.2017 | Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH, DFKI
Smart Manual Workstations Deliver More Flexible Production
04.04.2017 | Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH, DFKI
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
25.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
25.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
25.04.2017 | Life Sciences