Lower-cost displays, memories driving near-term nanotech growth

By Paula Doe, Contributing Editor

Nanotechnology may have a revolutionary impact on leading-edge semiconductor process technology beyond 32nm when traditional scaling reaches the fundamental limits of physics, but for at least the next five years or so the significant nanotechnology applications in electronics will likely be lower-cost displays and memories, according to SEMI’s new Global Nanotechnology Markets and Opportunities study.

“I was surprised, but we’ll see carbon nanotubes in display backlights within a few years, and FED displays,” said SEMI senior director of nanotechnology Lubab Sheet, who spearheaded the study, also supported by the SIA. She also noted that novel and lower-cost nanotechnology-based ferroelectric, magnetoresistive, phase change, and nanomechanical memory devices will also likely hit the market within the next five years, as will hard disks using perpendicular storage and patterned media or nanosurfacing. These should help create a $4.2 billion market for electronics-related nanotechnology production equipment and materials by 2010, translating to 20% annual growth from last year’s $1.4 billion market.

The study defines nanotechnology as the science of controlling the novel properties of materials that are the result of their nanoscale dimensions, which turns out to include much of the coming generation of semiconductor process technology. The first markets to adopt more revolutionary nanotechnology in a big way, though, are actually those most driven by cost, not performance technology — such as displays and storage, which can no longer cut manufacturing costs much further by doing things the same old ways.

Surveyed companies say a host of new low-cost displays using nanotechnology will hit the market within the next few years. Field emission backlights for displays made by low-cost thick-film printing of carbon nanotubes are likely to be cheaper than the cold cathode fluorescent backlights now used in large displays, and will be brighter and use less power. Low-cost field emission displays (FEDs) are also on the way, which create light by generating electrons from a film of nanotubes to excite a fluorescent material on the screen. These eliminate the need for a backlight entirely, although work remains to be done on vertically aligning the nanotubes, whether by CVD or printing. Canon and Toshiba plan volume production of their surface conduction emission display in 2007, using ink-jet printed palladium oxide as the emitter source. Organic displays will likely also be commercialized in the next few years, including improved OLEDs made by nanoimprinting, organic thin-film transistors for flexible displays, and electrophoretic displays that use nanoparticles suspended in fluid that aggregate when an electric field is applied.

With these backlights and displays, and some other developing applications in nanomechanical memory and sensors, carbon nanotubes will become a real new nanoelectronics materials market, although it will still remain a relatively modest $100 million niche in 2010. Although startup suppliers now have the higher profile, many of the big electronics materials suppliers are also quietly working on making carbon nanotubes, with development now focusing on issues of purity and consistency, and on production in volume. “There’s not enough supply yet,” noted Sheet, who said some big potential users are buying from everyone they can, and still having to do their purification in house. As with most nanomaterials, she noted, it will most likely be the big established electronic materials suppliers who end up with most of this business, whether they develop the technology on their own or buy it from someone else.

Most of the 39% annual growth in nanomaterials for electronics propelling the market from $161 million last year up to $1.1 billion in 2010, is seen coming from nano-level improvements to the next generation of more traditional electronic materials, particularly designer molecules for advanced photoresists, and various kinds of dielectric coatings.

On the equipment side, much of the $1.8 billion to be generated in new annual revenue from equipment for nanoelectronics by 2010 will go to suppliers of metrology and inspection tools, which make up roughly 50%-60% of the nanoequipment market, as developers and producers across all sectors need higher-resolution tools and better ways to see in depth. Next-generation lithography tools are also counted as another big chunk of this market, including imprint tools for displays and hard disk storage applications, and immersion and EUV scanners for semiconductors.

“The broad opportunity for semiconductor equipment vendors is matching existing tools to new technologies,” said Sheet, noting the example of how plasma equipment will handle expensing and exhausting catalysts. Leveraging existing semiconductor production technology could even make self-assembly just another chamber on the process tool.

Nanotechnology applications for semiconductor production equipment in other industries (e.g., DNA arrays) are so far limited by the small volumes needed, noted Sheet.

Making the connections with the right folks developing nanotechnology is also something of a problem. “It’s challenging to find people in the nanoworld who understand the technology but are also ready to manufacture,” said Sheet. Some larger SEMI members report they’re getting inundated by nanotechnology companies contacting them with clever scientific ideas, but say the majority have no proof of concept. SEMI is considering coming up with some guidelines for nanotechnology companies to show they have something of substance, and plans to focus on helping nanotechnology developers find the technology they need for manufacturing, while concentrating on bringing to SEMICON West nanotechnology companies that have things to sell to the semiconductor supply chain.

SEMI conducted more than 135 interviews with major players worldwide to gauge what nanotechnology would mean for the electronics manufacturing supply chain, map out equipment and materials requirements, forecast market size by segment, and identify key opportunities for suppliers. — P.D.

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