Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Nanoelectronics and the Janus-face of Nano

Intel, as reported in today's New York Times, announced an overhaul of basic chip design. Industry press releases call it the "most significant change" in chip design since the development of the integrated circuit in the 1960s. They key lies in a new transistor design that uses a hafnium-based insulating layer and a metal-gate electrode (vs. silicon gate electrodes and silicon dioxide as the insulator in current designs). According to the John Markoff, the new design will allow Intel to make further incremental advances with chip features as fine as 45 nanometers.

While only time will support this claim, it is interesting to see that the announcement came out a day after the Boston Globe reported that the Cambridge City Council, following on the heels of Berkeley, was considering regulations for nanoparticle research (just as they did for recombinant DNA research c. 1976).

So here we see the two faces of nano again - the continued development of nanoscale electronics with economic implications in the 10s of billions of dollars and policy makers' continued fixation on EHS issues. This is not to say that EHS issues are not worth considering...but is the obsession on EHS concerns, which seems largely an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon, at the neglect of other issues the best way to proceed?


  1. It would be pretty hard to inhale a computer chip and they are fabricated in clean rooms then packaged in epoxy. The only people at risk are probably the cleanroom workers. We see how nice and safe the clean room is here. Hydrofluoric acid will always be the greatest clean room hazard.

    Mad props to Patrick for talking semiconductors like a pro.

    The international herald version of this story repeatedly uses the word materials. I kinda sorta wonder if the attention that this is drawing to materials science and nanotechnology makes it a good time for me to write an article about what kids should be learning in school to prepare them for careers in materials science so that the next generation of chips will be even smaller and I can watch an entire season of my favorite augumented reality show on a single methanol cartridge while flying from here to Tokyo.

    This really highlights the strong relationship between materials and nanoscience better than any other big news in years.

  2. I saw this article, too - what I took away from it was that Intel's latest breakthrough is "evolutionary" rather than revolutionary... indeed, I think someone was quoted as making that distinction. Intel's technique buys more time for Moore's law... but it may not solve the fundamental problems of smaller and smaller silicon chip design. So what's next on the nano-electonics agenda?

  3. Mary & Co.

    Cyrus sent me a link to this article; the last few paragraphs are esp. interesting with the post-silicon comments:

  4. According to Bernie Meyerson, chief technologist for IBM's Systems & Technology Group:

    "We don't build Vespa scooters, we build Ferraris. We've been talking about high-k for five years now, and if we wanted to, we could ship it out the door tomorrow. But there's no reason to do that because it doesn't solve any problem for us. We're not addressing a crisis issue that hit us in the head when we didn't see it coming," Meyerson said.

    "Ours is a more fundamental implementation; it's a drop-in, or a one-for-one replacement, for SiO2," he said, referring to existing silicon dioxide technology. "I've said for years that gate oxide scaling is ending. The gates are literally five atoms thick. What are you going to do, build one that's two-and-a-half atoms thick?"