Breakthrough research in the semiconductor industry

By Pushkar P. Apte

Research forms the DNA of the semiconductor industry — few other industries invest as much as a percentage of revenue.  Semiconductor research has always driven the Moore’s Law Mantra of continuously making things “cheaper, better, faster, and smaller.”  This brought the industry into the realm of nanotechnology, where manipulation of just a few atoms yields complex quantum effects.   This requires multi-faceted innovation — in materials, processing and characterization techniques, and advanced patterning to fabricate these tiny devices.  To explore the various dimensions of this innovation, SEMICON West 2014 features a session on “Breakthrough Research Technologies.”

Dr. Thorsten Lill from Lam Research, who will present at this session, explains, “As device dimensions and their allowed tolerances approach the same order of magnitude as inter-atomic distances, atomic scale processing will soon be a necessity. We will discuss the framework of developing production-worthy atomic layer etch (ALE) to achieve layer-by-layer removal with atomic fidelity.”   This is nanotechnology at its best — where we are engineering materials by each atomic layer.  Precision engineering also requires precision simulation and modeling, as Dr. Peter Ventzek of Tokyo Electron will describe for plasma chemistries used in etching and other processes.

We also need novel techniques to characterize materials at the atomic level.  Dr. John Mardinly of ASU, also presenting at this session, describes one such technique: “Aberration-Corrected Transmission Electron Microscopy provides numerous advantages over conventional Field-Emission Transmission Electron Microscopes. Resolution is improved by 2-3 times, and imaging and analysis can be conducted with lower accelerating voltages so that specimen damage is reduced.” In conventional bright field imaging, delocalization is eliminated so that interfaces between materials are imaged precisely. In Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopes, the beam current density can be 8-10 times higher than in a convention Field-Emission Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope. This dramatically improves the visibility of features and enables chemical mapping through Electron Energy Loss Spectroscopy (EELS) or Energy-dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) with atomic resolution.

Aside from technology drivers, new market forces are now re-shaping the industry: the rise of the individual consumer as the dominant end-user; the application of technology to diverse fields such as energy, transportation and healthcare; and the rapid proliferation of the Internet of Things.  These entail complex functionality, which often requires complementing nanoscale digital devices with “More-than-Moore” functions like biological sensors, better analog and power devices other silicon.  Prof. Oliver Brand will describe research advances in the “More-than-Moore” areas of chemical microsensors, inertial sensors and micromachined ultrasonic transducers at the Center for Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) and Microsystem Technologies on the Georgia Tech campus.

This multi-dimensional, fast-paced research requires academia, research institutes, and the industry to work closely together, not just to push the research, but also to implement it in the “real world” successfully.  Prof. Douglas A. Keszler from OSU will describe how the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry focuses on breakthrough research to enable next-generation capabilities in semiconductor and display manufacturing, highlighting the technologies of spin-outs Inpria and Amorphyx.  Dr. Michael Khbeis of the Washington Nanofabrication Facility (WNF) at the University of Washington will describe advances in packaging/3D integration, silicon photonics, magnetic materials, superconductivity, photovoltaics, and quantum information systems.

It is exciting to imagine what capabilities such breakthrough research will enable in the future. From cramming more than a billion electronic transistors on a thumbnail, decoding the human genome, and placing a powerful computer in everyone’s pocket, how will technology change the world?  Besides richer computing, communications, and entertainment, we can now also tackle large and meaningful topical challenges, such as climate change, energy and water conservation, implementation of renewables, and affordable, effective healthcare.  Information Technology and the Internet of Things are already making a dent in these challenges and enabling research as discussed will accelerate this and help us improve our lives and our planet.

University and research institutions are increasingly important to help accelerate technology advances. Learn more about the latest — from speakers working in research at Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lam Research/KU Leuven/imec Joint Project, Oregon State University, TEL, U. of Washington — at the Breakthrough Research Technologies session at SEMICON West 2014.

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