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Electronic Design

Into The Nano Frontier—Closer Than You Might Think

Getting ready for the annual NanoBusiness Alliance conference, I finished shaving and slathered my skin with nanoparticle-enhanced sunscreen. I pulled on some nanofiber-coated pants, finished getting dressed, and headed out to my car, which gleamed thanks to its shiny nanopaint finish.

I stopped at the mailbox and pulled out the latest Red Herring, whose front-cover headline screamed "NANO NO-NO" and asked who will assess the dangers of nanotechnology.

According to Red Herring, $50 billion worth of nano-enabled products were sold worldwide in 2006, with another $12 billion spent on nano R&D. More than 380 consumer products currently contain nanotech elements, while the National Science Foundation predicts a $1 trillion market by 2015.

The first wave of nanoproducts glazed us with the sheen of new chemicals and coatings. But the "nano effect" in electronics is already bigger than many in the market might realize: for starters, there's a lot of electronic design involved in creating the tools for viewing and manipulating nanoparticles.

Successful companies like FEI that make scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) are now marketing lower-cost tools to colleges and corporate labs. Jeannine Sargent of Veeco said her company sells optical and atomic force microscopes ranging from $50,000 to $2 million, and buyers include a wide range of companies working on nano and bio-life projects.

One conference session on nano-based diagnostic agents highlighted the potential for test devices deployed in the doctor's office. Point-of-care sample analysis speeds the doctor's ability to diagnose and treat medical conditions.

Siemens and General Electric have recently acquired companies offering in vitro diagnostics, where nano materials are used as ultra-sensitive markers to more easily detect cancer and other diseases. The markers are used in combination with imaging technology, an equipment segment growing at 25% per year.

I expected the keynote from Du Pont chief scientist and CTO Uma Chowdhry would focus chiefly on nanocoatings. Interestingly, many of the materials Chowdhry mentioned were aimed at the electronics market.

For semiconductor manufacturing, Du Pont has developed photo-resist polymers that allow better line shaping. The company also offers thin films to coat vias and trenches in multilayer circuits. Chowdhry described "designer molecules" for deposition of a single copper atomic layer. Du Pont is also working on field emission displays using carbon nanotubes as light-emitting devices, promising a higher current density than LCDs.

Nano-enabled display technologies are a hot research area because of the potential for thin displays that require less power. Applied Nanotech is an intellectual property (IP) developer working with carbon nanotubes. QD Vision uses quantum dots in flat panels where each pixel emits its own light, saving 20% in power and providing strong color gamut and saturation. And, Nanoopto creates optical nanostructures for products such as isolators for optical communications and IR filters for digital imaging.

Nanochip uses three-wafer stacked MEMS technology along with arrays of atomic force read/write tips that CEO Gordon Knight said offer 200 times the density of any semiconductor. The company expects volume production by 2010 with 32 Gbytes per die, eventually ramping to 4 Tbytes per die by 2017. "Hopefully by then you'll have 10 to 20 terabytes in your cell phone," Knight said.

Nanosys is working with Intel and Micron on quantum dot-enabled flash memory. In manufacturing, each mono-layer of quantum dots is electrically isolated, so leakage would only affect one dot. Intel has qualified the technology, which is forecast to be used commercially at the 35-nm node in 2009, according to Nanosys' Peter Garcia.

Nantero's vision is for NRAM to become a "universal" memory, replacing other forms of memory. CEO Greg Schmergel said it is as fast as SRAM and as dense as DRAM while offering the nonvolatility of flash. The technology, which Nantero licenses to several manufacturing partners, uses carbon nanotubes to create nano-electromechanical bits that are bent up and down via van der Waals forces. It can scale down as far as a single carbon nanotube and is compatible with today's semiconductor manufacturing processes, said Schmergel.

Texas Instruments CTO Hans Stork agreed that nano will bring some of its greatest impact to memory technology. "SRAM is the most difficult circuit to scale," he said, because of patterning challenges and also because at lower voltages numerous bits begin to fail and corrupt the stored data. Stork's keynote focus on the challenges of design in the deep-submicron world was a strong reminder that chip designers already live in the nanoscale world, counting on new nanotechnologies to enable future generations of electronics.

TAGS: Components
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