Nanotechnology holds tremendous potential to improve our quality of life. Imagine what manufacturing with nanoscale control could mean in terms of enhanced material properties and functionality of devices. Nanotechnologies promise stronger materials than anything we know today, cleaner and more efficient energy conversion and storage, efficient and high-performance displays, and many other benefits.
But before designers can take advantage of any technology, it must be understood and its limitations appreciated. This certainly is the case with nanotechnology. Only an interdisciplinary effort calling for expertise across a whole range of subjects—electrical and electronics engineering, computer science, biotechnology, materials engineering, chemistry, and physics—will help move nanotechnology from the research laboratory to a production environment. Myriad tests and measurements must be carried out as part of this maturation. Often, new measurement techniques are needed so the physical phenomena behind nanotechnology can be observed and understood.
One of the main challenges of electrical characterization of nanotech materials and devices is dealing with the ultra-low signal levels this technology usually produces. High-sensitivity, high-resolution instruments (e.g., electrometers, picoammeters, and nanovoltmeters) are required to detect the tiny electrical signals generated. Then there's the wide range of behavior that these materials and components can exhibit. For instance, by manipulating materials with impurities on the nanoscale level, the material can shift from being a supreme insulator to a high conductor. The result is an extremely wide range of test signals, from extremely low currents to several amperes.
But even the most sensitive electrometer can't measure the current produced by a single electron. Special measurement techniques based on indirect observation are necessary. A close working relationship between instrument suppliers and researchers is required to develop these techniques. Many of the measurement concepts developed for the semiconductor industry provide a good starting point for nanoscale device measurements.