The semiconductor industry is on the verge of transitioning to new realities of fabrication. For many years advances have been driven by a desire to fulfil Moore’s law, a term coined by Caltech professor of electronics Gordon Moore in 1965. In the paper “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits” published in Electronics Magazine, Moore predicted that the numbers of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every 24 months.

His prediction has been successfully fulfilled mainly due to a continuous ability to shrink the components manufactured on a wafer chip by improving fabrication processes during the last 40 years. Not only have manufacturers been able to cram more transistors in a chip, but by doing so they have improved the speed of communication among components and reduced the power requirements to drive devices.

This “electronics buffet,” so to speak, is coming to an end. Manufacturing is close to the point where, because of technical difficulties—particularly in lithography--engineers can no longer shrink components using the fabrication processes in place for the last four or five decades.

Experimental techniques are being tested to overcome the present limitations, and from this research have emerged techniques utilizing quantum mechanics, 3D packaging and electron spin, amongst others. These nanotechnology-based approaches are expected to yield better results, but also are expected to change the very nature of electronics and electronics fabrication.

Public-Private Effort

To address this challenge, the U.S. federal government brought together 26 agencies and created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Some of the agencies include the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), NASA, and other federal offices with roles to play in the tech industry. Some of the biggest industrial names in electronics (including IBM, Siemens, GE, Intel and Globalfoundries) and education are also involved in the NNI.

Why did a broad array of federal agencies, leading universities and rival companies agree to form this group? The answer is the pressing need to change course before it is too late, or else an entire industry hangs in the balance.

The vision of the NNI as stated by Dr. Curt A. Richter, the leader of the nanoelectronics group at the NIST, is to develop “a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.” The NNI is intended to expedite the discovery, development and deployment of nanoscale science and technology to serve the public good through coordinated research and development that is aligned with the missions of the participating agencies.

These agencies fulfill the NNI vision by working together to accomplish four primary goals: To advance world-class nanotechnology research and development; to foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit; to develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology; and to support the responsible development of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives

Within the framework of the NNI, subgroups have been created to address specific technologies. These subgroups are called nanotechnology signature initiatives (NSI). They include:

• Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion
• Sustainable Nanomanufacturing: Creating the Industries of the Future
• Nanoelectronics for 2020 and Beyond
• Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure: Enabling National Leadership in Sustainable Design (NKI)
• Nanotechnology for Sensors and Sensors for Nanotechnology:
• Improving and Protecting Health, Safety and the Environment

The Nanoelectronics for 2020 and Beyond initiative is important because of the need to keep the United States atop the semiconductor industry.

Since the industry has been doing so well, why is there a pressing need to change processes now? The reason is that silicon, the material that has been driving the success of this industry since the 1960s, is reaching its demise in electronic fabrication. Manufacturing has reached a juncture where factors beyond chip density are limiting engineer’s ability to increase chip performance.

One of these limitations is the clock speed of microprocessors, which has reached something of a plateau. Since 2003, there has not been an increase in the speed of single microprocessors. This is why computers exist with dual-core processors or similar features: instead of using one improved processor, two or three processors are relied on to speed up the computing process.

A second limitation is scaling the operating voltage of new chips. There has not been a really effective way of lowering chip operating voltage (power requirement) since 2005.

These limitations have a simple source: heat removal (or power dissipation). When producing smaller chips with a higher density of transistors, power density (heat) increases, but heat removal becomes extremely difficult.

What is needed, according to Dr. Richter, is “lower powered electronics to continue the performance advances traditionally associated with Moore’s law.” This statement is at the core of the effort behind Nanoelectronics for 2020 and Beyond NSI.

To achieve this initiative, five goals have been established for industry, academia and government to follow.

Goal 1. Explore new or alternative “state variables” for computing. This goal is a leading example of a public-private partnership: industry, academia, and government.

Goal 2. Merge nanophotonics with nanoelectronics. According to Dr. Richter, the specific goals of this initiative are:

• A variety of active and passive plasmonic devices and functions
• Analysis techniques for unified models of nanophotonics, plasmonics and electronics components under circuit equation solvers like SPICE.
• A domestic base to fabricate chip-scale photonic devices and networks using the CMOS processing line and base
• Performance-per-watt gains on communications-intensive applications

Goal 3. Explore carbon-based nanoelectronics. Some of the goals for this topic include:

• Near-term (current: demonstration of carbon-based logic circuits
• Longer term (3-plus-years ): fashion and control the electronic band gap in graphene
• Over time: large-area, graphene-based electronics on low cost flexible substrates; performance comparable to or exceeding silicon-based CMOS chips.

Goal 4. Exploit nanoscale processes and phenomena for quantum information systems. Selected goals for this initiative, include:

• Delivery of a new field-usable, ultra-stable, optical atomic clock with ultra-accuracy
• Quantum network inside photonic crystals (PCs) made of quantum dots (QDs) in nanocavities
• Understanding the role of diamond materials and nanostructures for QIS

Goal 5. Create a nanoelectronics research and manufacturing infrastructure network. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) is an integrated network partnership of 14 user facilities, supported by the National Science Foundation, serving the needs of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

Nanoelectronics is a significant driver of our economy because it advances the forefront of computation – a core technology in nowadays world -, information technology, mobile technology, sensors, transport and others.

The National Nantechnology Initiative (NNI) was devised to advance electronic manufacturing beyond the physical and theoretical limitations of current technologies, so we can evolve electronics beyond the scaling limits of Moore's Law. For this we will need broad thinking across multiple disciplines and a strong collaboration of industry, government and education.