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
Construction of practical quantum computers radically simplified
05.12.2016 | University of Sussex
UT professor develops algorithm to improve online mapping of disaster areas
29.11.2016 | University of Tennessee at Knoxville
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine
07.12.2016 | Life Sciences
07.12.2016 | Health and Medicine