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Optimism for Nanotech Business is the NY Times Angle

Although the New York Times doesn’t devote much ink to the subject of nanotechnology, when they do they manage to cover it they put a pretty positive spin on the subject no matter how dire the circumstance. You might call it “putting a bow on it.”

In this example from the end of 2007 in which the Grey Lady seems to acknowledge that there is an uneasy feeling that we’ve somehow have been cheated by all the hype from about 2000 on, we get a promise that was all going to change real soon when all these start-up companies go public.

Of course, nanotechnology companies going public in the years 2008 and thus far in 2009 has been few and far between. Honestly, I don’t know of one, but if someone knows of any please let me know.

Unfazed by their rosy appraisal of nanotechnology 18 months ago failing to materialize, the NY Times have put their happy face on nanotech once again.

Of course, the paper of record again presents us with the difficult context from which nanotechnology is going to save the world. But nanotech is no longer suffering from unsupported hype, but this time the challenging obstacle is government budget cuts that promise to decimate nanotechnology epicenters like California.

The savior this time comes in the form of university and industry collaborative development agreements. The evolution from IPOs being the rescuer of nanotechnology back to basic university/industry partnerships seems more a regression than a progression. But considering the current state of the market, finding any silver lining to the storm clouds now circling nanotechnology seems welcomed.

Intel fellow gunshy about EUV future

EUV lithography is plagued with several problems, and these need to be solved before EUVL can be adopted by the chip manufacturing industry. This was made especially clear in Wednesday morning’s keynote speech by lithography scientist and Intel fellow Sam Sivakumar at the EUV Litho workshop in Honolulu, Hawaii. Sivakumar said that Intel is proceeding down the old ITRS roadmap in the traditional “new every two” fashion. Later this year they will release their first chips based on the 32-nm process technology, which puts them on track for 22-nm commercially available chips in 2011. Sivakumar was also quite frank about the 15-nm chips, which he says are slated for 2013. And yet despite that certainty, he would not be pinned down about what methods Intel would use to print these chips. Intel is hedging its bets: one “lighter” flavor of double patterning lithography creates the 32-nm chips. When it’s time to crank out 22-nm chips, Intel will be knee-deep in design rules. Sivakumar speculated that by the time the 15-nm process technology becomes a necessity it’s an even bet between EUV and continuing to torture the equipment and the engineers into resolving those infinitesimal line widths.

    That evidently suprised Chris Mack, because he got up at the end of the keynote and pressed Sivakumar on whether they were maybe even one percent more in favor of one of the technologies at this point. Sivakumar wouldn’t budge.

    On an unrelated note, I asked Mack: If someone had a gun to your head, and asked you to bet on the next-generation technologies: EUV lithography or E-beam Lithography (the increasingly attention-getting technology coming out the Netherlands), what would be your bet?

    “I’d bet on the gun,” said Mack.

Belgian Researchers Demonstrate Both Attractive and Repulsive Nanophotonic Forces

Joint research at the University of Ghent and the nanoelectronics research center IMEC have developed waveguides that when laser is passed through them generate both attracting and repulsing optical forces upon them.

According to the early announcement of the research, which eventually will be published in the August issue of Nature Nanotechnology, the demonstration of the repulsive force is a first and constitutes a matter of “fundamental scientific importance.”

The applications for this research will be in high-speed telecommunications where the technology could be an option for all-optical signal processing functions on a chip.

How a $150-million Nanotech Company Becomes a $3-million one within Two Years

The UK publication This is Money has an interesting account  of how Oxonica once the model of nanotech startup success has become a cautionary tale within a couple of years. Once trading at more than £100 million (US$161 million), the company is trading at just 3p, valuing the company at less than £2 million (U$3.2 million).

By this account and others I have read, the downfall of the company seems akin to Greek tragedy in that the company was brought down by its own hubris. Instead of just paying licensing fees to the inventor of a fuel additive that allowed diesel engines to run more efficiently and cut carbon emissions, once Oxonica looked poised to win a huge contract for the product they claimed that they had developed their own and didn't need to license the original formula.  

A couple of problems quickly developed, the contract more or less fell through when the Turkish fuel company Petrol Efisi that were testing the fuel additive balked when it didn't meet its stated performance levels. Doh. Then the inventor filed a lawsuit and won. When Oxonica appealed, the court again sided with the inventor again. Doh x 2. 

Now in the hope of making up for poor business decisions with endless legal wrangling the article outlines how the company has "set aside £394,000 to cover the royalties and it has earmarked a further £800,000 for possible legal costs. The total is already dangerously close to Oxonica's bank balance of £1.6m."

I believe in EUVL, I do I do!

This year’s International Workshop on Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography is at the Sheraton Waikiki, a hotel that overlooks about ten thousand miles of Pacific blue, in which child-sized sea turtles clumsily flap in late afternoon. Earlier today, conference organizer and EUV Litho, Inc. founder Vivek Bakshi caught up with me to remind me that attendees had been instructed to dress informally. I think you know what that’s code for in Hawaii (hint: five meters from the hotel, a store called “Crazy Shirts” makes money hand over fist). And indeed, several Hawaiian-beshirted gentlemen waved to us in flutters of floral reds and yellows and greens while they made their way into the obligatorily-named conference rooms: Kona, Lanai, Maui. Bakshi’s own sartorial decisions had put him about halfway there. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt in name only. The pattern was recognizable, but muted by the gray, white and black that lent it an almost ironic patina.

One interesting thing about this workshop is the presence of lithography guru and gentleman scientist Chris Mack. Shouldn’t he be at Semicon West, the annual workshop of industry consortium Sematech, underway in Francisco this week, coincidentally overlapping exactly with the EUV Litho workshop?

As it turns out, there’s an interesting little bit of unofficial bad blood between Sematech and EUV Litho. Bakshi, a former Sematech lithography researcher, started EUV Litho, Inc., when Sematech folded their Austin, TX operations and relocated the staff to Albany, New York. Bakshi stayed in temperate Austin and started up his own company, which specializes in workshops just like Sematech does. Apparently the EUV Litho workshop is sort of unofficially boycotted by the folks at Sematech.

But the EUV Litho workshop has acquired the reputation of being more academically oriented where Sematech workshops tend to be focused more on industry vendors and speakers. And according to Mack, this workshop is more interesting. “This isn’t the usual ‘we’re on track, trust us’ talks that the tool vendors always give at similar Sematech meetings,” he says.

Bakshi agrees emphatically. “If anyone gives an industry presentation,” he says, “they are immediately sent out to the poster session.” Consequently, the EUV Litho workshop has developed a reputation for being more academic and R & D-oriented than industry-oriented.

But still, it’s weird to see Chris Mack here. This is a man who notoriously believes that EUV is dying on the vine and that within two years, no one will speak of it again. In fact, earlier this year Mack and Bakshi entered into a bet on the future of EUV lithography in which Mack put up his prized Lotus. Mack’s bet: “Number of submitted abstracts in the area of EUVL for 2011 SPIE Advanced Lithography conference will be zero.”

To hear Mack talk about the future of EUV lithography, you might think you were hearing about a failing political campaign. “A mentality sets in where people don’t want to hear criticisms,” Mack explains. “They think it might sap the momentum. If people doubt the technology, maybe they won’t put the resources into making it work. So the tendency is to gloss over problems.”

“You start to doubt if these talks are really truthful. That’s the bad side of these kinds of workshops. They’re not the really frank discussions of technology gaps that need to be dealt with.”

Or maybe EUV lithography is more like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan Robin Hood*. If you start stop believing in her, she dies.

Mack is not the only one with grave doubts about EUV. At SPIE this past March, IBM’s Bernie Meyerson, ever one to turn a colorful phrase, remarked that ASML’s Albany EUV alpha-demo tool “looks like you rolled an electromagnet through an automotive junkyard.”

Meyerson also said that “scaling is dead. Moore’s Law isn’t.” This led Mack to speculate that Meyerson was signposting that EUV would probably die in the water as more companies looked for alternatives to scaling to make their chips run better, faster and at lower power.

But Bakshi is confident that EUV lithography will prevail. “This is a multi-node technology,” he says. “It will take you to the end of Moore’s law, and there will be no need for any more expensive optical tricks.”

Semicon West
and EUV Litho are both dealing with three main issues that stand in the way of EUV lthography being as ubiquitous as 193-nm litho is today. Those issues are metrology, contamination, and bright light sources.

On Monday, light source manufacturer Cymer Inc. reported that that it has shipped a laser-plasma EUV lithography source that was capable of 75 Watts of exposure power.The company thinks it can achieve wafer production of 60 silicon wafers per hour, the minimum requirement for EUV lithography to be adopted industry-wide. Bakshi said "everyone is thriled something is shipping." But he would not comment on whether 75 Watts was a realistic number.



*Wow, that jet lag is really something, isn't it.  

EE Unemployment Doubles in U.S.

The unemployment rate in the United States for EEs rose to 8.6 percent in the second quarter of 2009, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 29 000 EEs were unemployed in the second quarter, more than double the first-quarter’s 13 000.

In a press release, IEEE-USA, a U.S.-based unit of the IEEE devoted to career issues, noted that the previous quarterly record was 7 percent, in the first quarter of 2003. “These data suggest that engineers laid off last year and early this year are having trouble securing the new engineering jobs being created,” IEEE-USA president Gordon Day was quoted as saying.

The U.S. isn’t the only country in which engineers are feeling the pinch. In Germany, the “engineering and electrical sector has shed 124,000 jobs since December,” the Bloomberg news agency reported in June.

“German engineering orders, a key component in Europe's biggest economy, were almost half in May what they were a year ago, data from the sector federation VDMA showed on Wednesday,” reports Agence France-Presse. That comes after monthly drops of 49 percent (February), 35 percent (March), and 58 percent (April). The data were compiled by the German engineering association VDMA.

Nanoparticle-based Sunscreens Get Environmental Group's Seal of Approval

Andrew Maynard’s 20/20 Science blog picked up on the latest environmental, health and safety (EHS) news on nanotech in which the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has hardly been a cheerleader for nanotechnology to date, released an approving evaluation of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens.

For the EWG to come back with an evaluation that more or less states using sunscreens with these nanoparticles is a whole lot better for your health than getting a sunburn  certainly was not going to be taken lying down by the NGOs who have sworn nanotechnology as their mortal enemy in order to fill up their day.

We get a bit of this in the comments to Maynard’s blog from a Friends of the Earth (FoE) representative in which every possible idea is presented to somehow discredit the EWG report.

Maynard, who always comes across as being bound to science more than ideology, treats the litany of complaints with kid gloves at once dispelling any reasons for not using these sunscreens and at the same time leaving room for hope that nanoparticles may still cause us harm. One wouldn’t want to discourage FoE in Australia from having something to complain about.

But this latest research has got to come as a blow to the NGOs who had stirred up so much concern (fear) about nanoparticles used in cosmetics. If this continues, they’ll be left with only food to carry on about.

The Capacity to Create More Capacity

We at Spectrum had just sent our July issue off to the printer in late June when the telecommunications research firm Telegeography issued a report “Trans-Atlantic bandwidth – the hangover lingers” that provides an ominous footnote to our article about submarine cable construction (”A Telecom Diet Rich in Fiber”) Telegeography forecasts trans-Atlantic demand to rise from 10 terabits per second today to about 60 Tb/s in 2015.

The first 30 or so terabits can be met by increased use of existing cables, it says, but the final 20 terabits will require new cables that may not get built:

Trans-Atlantic capacity will be exhausted by 2014, and cables providing diversity along geographically unique routes may run out of capacity even sooner. New capacity will clearly be needed; less clear is who will deploy this capacity, how they will deploy it, and how they will finance it.

Telegeography says that current wholesale rates “reflect only the incremental cost of the optical equipment needed to provision the circuit, but not the cost of cable construction.”

While 2014 is still five years off, lengthy cable financing and construction cycles mean that carriers must confront this challenge far sooner. New technologies, such as 40 Gb/s transmission line rates, may allow operators to expand capacity on some existing systems, delaying the need for new cables. However, these technologies remain unproven on a commercial long-haul submarine cable, and will only postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

One thing there’s never a shortage of is predictions that telecommunications demand will exceed the industry’s capacity to create new capacity. As with Moore’s Law, whose terminus is endlessly predicted to be just a few years away, new telecommunications innovations have always interposed themselves to save the day. Logically, one day or another, the doomsdaysayers will be right. The question is, when will that day come?

Operator, Get Me Operations

What business are you in? It’s a question that all companies need to ask themselves from time to time, especially in rapidly changing technology realms. Famously, the railroads saw themselves in the railroad business, not the transportation business, and largely missed out on automobiles, highways, airplanes, airports, and a few other the trillion-dollar developments. The venerable Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers opted not to include in its ranks the new aeronautical engineers of the 20th century, despite the similarities between air and water flows. Computer-maker Wang saw itself a purveyor of systems for word processing, not computation. The list is endless. Sprint has apparently asked itself what business it’s in. According to a story reported by the Financial Times and others,

Sprint Nextel, the struggling U.S. mobile network operator, is to outsource the management and day-to-day running of its two nationwide networks to Sweden's Ericsson in a seven-year deal worth between $4.5bn and $5bn.

There’s a certain irony to the FT coverage, isn’t there? Even as it is reporting otherwise, the FT calls Sprint a “U.S. mobile network operator,” when that’s exactly what Sprint has decided not to be. Ericsson will be the operator of Sprint’s U.S. mobile network. Sprint itself, even as it sheds itself of its own network operations duties, finds it hard to pay lip service to what might have easily been thought of as its core business:

Sprint, formed through the $36 billion merger of Sprint Communications and Nextel Communications in 2005, said yesterday it would retain full control of its networks.

Um, right.

It's hardly the first time Sprint done this kind of rethinking. Last year, it sold thousands of cellular towers to TowerCo in a $670 million deal. So it was already a cellular network operator without a lot of cellular base stations.

Meanwhile, a boatload of Sprint employees will have to redefine their own personal core missions, from “Sprint employees” to “people who run the Sprint network”:

Sprint has nearly 50 million subscribers on its CDMA and iDen networks in the U.S.. Under the deal's terms about 6000 Sprint employees will be transferred to Ericsson during the third quarter.

Presumably, once this legion rips off the Sprint logo from its collective workshirt and replace it with Ericsson’s, it won’t find the whole thing too confusing. Same job, new day. Similarly, Sprint does seem to understand what it considers the core mission of a mobile operator to be, once it doesn’t involve, you know, operations:

"This is about improving our customer experience," said Steve Elfman, network operations head. "While we get the benefit of Ericsson's expertise . . . we can focus our attention on bringing great devices, great services, great applications to them."

Uh, just one other thing. Maybe let’s get Elfman a new job title.

Nanotechnology's Evolving Role in Semiconductors

A couple of years ago I commented on frustration brewing at the time that chipmakers weren’t coming up with nanotechnology breakthroughs that the politicos who had funded the NNI were expecting.

It was a head-scratching moment for me because I wasn’t quite sure what they were expecting. But at about the same time, the semiconductor industry association, SEMI, was really beefing up its interest in nanotech, providing market research, newsletters, websites and a host of other information products to inform its members about the emerging field.

Now from what I can tell all those resources for information have been boiled down and diluted into an “Emerging Markets” page for SEMI.

But I still have some of the reports they generated at the time (I apologize, but my recent navigating through their website didn’t turn these up again), and about three years ago SEMI was quite earnest in their assessments of nanotech’s impact on electronics expecting that by 2010 nanoelectronics would constitute a US$520 billion market representing what it estimated as 48% of the overall electronics market.

According to SEMI, the big contributor to this market is what they termed “designer molecules”. These were essentially polymeric materials engineered at the molecular level to obtain specific properties. Examples of these molecules include dendrimers and macromolecules.

Applications for these molecules in semiconductors include photoresists, mould compounds, packaging adhesives and low-κ dielectrics. They also will find use in displays for improved transmission films and electronic ink. These molecules will also become critical to enabling self-assembly processes.

I just read a recent assessment of nanotech in semiconductors by the Editor-in-Chief of Solid-State Technology, Pete Singer, that shows how the market is developing today and more or less confirms some of the findings by SEMI a few years back. The article details how packaging applications are benefiting from nanomaterials, especially with some lead-free nanocomposite solders.

Incremental improvements, granted, but significant nonetheless. The issue is will these kinds of developments impress Mr. John Q. Congressman?

 
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