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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?


The Kindlers are coming to get me

Last Friday, the first day of the holiday weekend, I swung by the library; I had books to return and plans involving a new novel, a lounge chair, and a tall glass of ice tea. The library, however, was closed.

Another woman and I arrived at the locked doors at about the same time, and turned away. “Darn,” she said, “I needed a book for my book club; I was hoping to read it this weekend.”

“No kidding,” I replied, “I’m flat out of books.”

“Oh,” she says, whipping a Kindle out of her purse, “I never have that problem,” and proceeds to give me a 10-minute pitch about the marvels of the Kindle. (She was making this now rare trip to the library because the book she needed, something printed a while back, isn’t available on Kindle, to her dismay.)

Now I spend vast amounts of time in front of a computer. I also read a lot of books, mostly fiction, sometimes current nonfiction. I read them in hardcover and soft cover, borrowed from the library, or friends, or purchased from Amazon or from a garage sale. But, to date, I don’t Kindle. Because, for me, getting away from the electronic screen is part of the appeal of books, it flips a little switch in my brain that tells it to kick back and relax, because what I’m doing when I turn those paper pages is purely recreational.

You think that’d be OK with people. My gym went to electronic tracking of workout stats years ago, but no one minds that I still use the paper cards, neatly filed under my last name in a drawer near the entrance. I’m not a Luddite, but, again, when I go to the gym it’s for a mini-vacation, not more computer time.

But more and more, I’m running into Kindle evangelists; this woman in front of the library was the latest in a long line. They are determined to convert the heathen tree-killers among us. And they just won’t give up.

I tried to be polite, saying, mmm, interesting, so it really works for you, huh.  Meanwhile, I’m thinking that even if I’d wanted to read books in electronic format, which, to date, I don’t, having to purchase each book for $9.99 would be a deal breaker, given most of the books I read are borrowed, not bought. Conservatively, I’d say I go through three books a week, that’s $1560 a year. Ouch.

I finally asked her about the cost; does she find she’s spending more on reading material. Yes, she confessed; she made a deal with her husband to drop all her newspaper subscriptions to subsidize her Kindling; no, she doesn’t read them on Kindle, she’s just pretty much stopped reading the newspaper instead. Who knew that the Kindle could be banging another nail in the newspaper industry’s coffin?

I finally managed to edge back to my car. But this won’t be the last Kindler that will try to convince me to join the cult. And maybe, someday, they’ll win. But until then, if I see someone with a Kindle in hand, I’ll avoid eye contact and suddenly find somewhere else I need to be.

Cyber Attack on South Korea and US Said to be North Korean

Today's New York Times has a creepy account of DDoS attacks that crippled South Korean web sites and some US government web sites during this past weekend.

Access to at least 11 major Web sites in South Korea — including those of the presidential Blue House, the Defense Ministry, the National Assembly, Shinhan Bank, the mass-circulation daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo and the top Internet portal — have crashed or slowed down to a crawl since Tuesday evening, according to the government’s Korea Information Security Agency.

In an attack linked with the one in South Korea, 14 major Web sites in the United States — including those of the White House, the State Department and the New York Stock Exchange — came under similar attacks, according to anti-cyberterrorism police officers in Seoul.

The attack was believed to originate from North Korea.

Although the National Intelligence Service did not identify whom they believed responsible, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the spy agency had implicated North Korea or pro-North Korea groups.

This shows the Obama administration is right on the money in making cybersecurity a national priority. But, although the cyberczar post was announced on May 26, the position still has not been filled.

I nominate Victoria Coleman. Coleman, now a vice president at Samsung Electronics, was previously the director of security initiatives at Intel. More to the point, she co-authered a cybersecurity brief for the White House back in the Stone Age. She was a major source for an article I wrote on hardware trojans last year. ”The economy is globalized, but defense is not globalized,” she told me then. ”How do you reconcile the two?”

She was talking about chip manufacturing, but I think the question can be repurposed for cybersecurity as well.

A Patent Dispute Helps Deliver Nanotech Startup into Bankruptcy

Recently I suggested that nanotech startups face a daunting landscape filled with obstacles that could make the going difficult, such as law firms, short-sighted investors, and NGOs looking for their next industrial boogey man.

In the most recent example of one of these small companies running aground against one of these rocks, New York-based Evident Technologies has filed for protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws. According to the company, it has $4.8 million in debts and only $3.9 million in assets.

And what does CEO Clint Ballinger cite as the cause of this reorganization? The article says that in a statement Ballinger said the company had to file for bankruptcy because of mounting costs necessary to defend itself in an ongoing patent infringement lawsuit in Texas.

I am sure the company will come through this reorganization in a healthier condition. But one look at the company website and you have to wonder about the wisdom of pursuing four (LEDs, advanced materials, security and life sciences) quite distinct markets for quantum dots.

I would imagine succeeding in just one of these market sectors to start with is pretty difficult. I suppose the prevailing wisdom of pursuing four distinct markets in which it is likely that you don't know much about at least half of them is that you are spreading out your risk, or something like that. Companies like Evident that have a nanomaterial, in this case quantum dots, might benefit from focusing their resources in a market sector that they know the best. Or if they don't know any of them, to chose the most likely to be profitable.

In any case, it doesn’t appear from the published reports of the bankruptcy as though anyone indicated that spreading the company’s resources across four completely different markets played any part in the company's difficulties or its averaging “$10,000 of income per month, and $200,000 of monthly expense.” Ouch!

Large Hadron Collider Yields Long Sought Particle

The Large Hadron Collider has not yet started up again after last year's unfortunate accident. However, that has not kept scientists there from advancing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe's mysteries. The Onion Radio News reports today that LHC physicists have finally discovered the elusive "lady particle."

The LHC is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. It has had its ups and downs--well, mostly downs, what with melting magnets and delays. But now with this phenomenal breakthrough, the LHC has proven itself worth every penny of the $8 billion that reportedly went into its construction.

The engineering of the LHC, including the calorimeters, highly sensitive superconducting magnets, and astonishing lengths of wire is phenomenally complex. However, according to LHC scientists in the Onion interview, finding the lady particle was a relatively straightforward undertaking: "including a hint of lavender in the collider's array of supercooled magnets may have contributed to the breakthrough."

U.S. and Russia Agree to Continue Arms Reduction Efforts

As expected, the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers agreed today to mutually extend efforts to reduce their nation's atomic weapons stockpiles.

Visiting Moscow for the first time as commander-in-chief, U.S. President Barack Obama spared little time in tackling the top foreign affairs issue traditionally assigned to American leaders in the modern era. At their first meeting in London in April, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to renew discussions on efforts to develop a new bilateral pact on nuclear weapons to replace the decades-old Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires this December (see U.S. and Russian Leaders Vow to Renew Nuke Reduction Efforts in this space).

At the time, the two presidents said they would assign their arms experts to begin negotiations on a framework aimed at overhauling START's protocols by July. Today's agreement formalizes that initiative by pledging the parties to "begin work on a new, comprehensive, legally binding agreement" that would reduce each side's strategic warheads to a "range of 1500-1675" devices apiece.

In a joint statement, the two leaders said their government's "plan to continue the discussion concerning the establishment of cooperation in responding to the challenge of ballistic missile proliferation."

"We have instructed our experts to work together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and to prepare appropriate recommendations, giving priority to the use of political and diplomatic methods. At the same time, they plan to conduct a joint review of the entire spectrum of means at our disposal that allow us to cooperate on monitoring the development of missile programs around the world. Our experts are intensifying dialogue on establishing the Joint Data Exchange Center, which is to become the basis for a multilateral missile-launch notification regime."

The statement also included a call for the other nuclear-armed nations to join the original members of the atomic weapons club "to engage in equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation" on reducing arsenals the world over and "to refrain from steps that could lead to missile proliferation and undermine regional and global stability."

Further details of today's accord were outlined in separate documents published by both sides and in a public press conference. Please see:

"President Medvedev and I are committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past so that we can advance the interests that we hold in common," Obama told media gathered at the Kremlin. "Today, we've made meaningful progress in demonstrating through deeds and words what a more constructive U.S.-Russian relationship can look like in the 21st century."

Tesla Motors Sedan Readied for European Roads

The revolutionary line of electric vehicles from Tesla Motors will now include a right-hand drive version that drivers in the U.K. and other nations who drive in the left lane can enjoy.

The all-electric Tesla Model S, scheduled for availability in 2012, has a range of up to 300 miles without recharge and pickup that can take you from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds, according to the manufacturer. And when it comes time to power it up again, the stylish sedan can be recharged in 45 minutes from an electrical outlet using its QuickCharge feature.

At a modest price of US $49 900 (after a tax credit), the Model S seats five adults and two children, with a 17-inch touchscreen entertainment display for passengers.

To get the show on the road more quickly, the U.S. Department of Energy recently approved $465 million in low-interest loans to Tesla Motors to accelerate the production of its affordable electric vehicles. The company, based in San Carlos, Calif., said it will use $365 million of the funding for engineering and assembly of the Model S, according to a prepared statement.

The founder of the company Elon Musk (featured several times in these pages) said in late June that his firm will use the loan money "precisely the way that Congress intended," as a source of venture capital to build sustainable transport.

Now comes word that the new Tesla sedan will not be limited to the streets of America. The Australian website PCAuthority reports that the sedan version will soon include a right-hand drive configuration. The report notes that the Model S will still have to overcome the challenge of needing convenient recharging facilities while away from home to keep it juiced up, as well as a hefty price tag to replace its hefty battery (which has a life expectancy of some 180 000 miles of road use presently).

Still, it's an exciting prospect for motorists the world over, no matter which side of road they drive on.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff in Nanotechnology Research Data

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a statistical analysis technique that will enable researchers to better distinguish between unwanted equipment-based artifacts in nanoscale measurements and true nanoscale phenomenon.

As I pointed out last month, it’s a hard and time-consuming process to design a nanomaterial. But this new statistical analysis technique is supposed to shorten the process by reducing the amount of experimental data required in order to reach a conclusion.

While huge transformational developments that may or may not happen capture the imagination of both the mainstream and industry press, it is the incremental improvements like this that lead to significant changes in the long run.


New DARPA Chief Named

Regina DuganCourtesy of Danger Room:

Mechanical engineer and defense entrepreneur Regina Dugan has been named the new director of Darpa, the Pentagon’s premiere research arm.

Previous director Tony Tether was relieved of the post in February, after serving the longest-ever term as DARPA director. Dugan will have some big shoes to fill. Tether presided over the DARPA Grand Challenge and an enormous jump in prosthetics technology, among many other groundbreaking research projects.

But Dugan is no slouch. She has a PhD from the California Institute of Technology, and did a 4-year stint as program manager at DARPA’s Defense Science Office (which is like DARPA's DARPA, the nexus of the truly eyebrow-raising research) from 1996 to 2000. Her research there included robot swarms. In 2001, according to Danger Room, she formed RedX, "a company that builds security gear, including an explosives detector which relies on fluorescent ink."

The full scoop is at Danger Room, which was also the first to speculate that she would be the top pick for the post. 


PHOTO CREDIT: Dugan Ventures

Curb Your Laser Enthusiasm

From the desk of guest blogger Jeff Hecht:

Are laser developers too enthusiastic for their own good? Top Pentagon officials think so, veteran laser researcher Martin Stickley of the University of Central Florida told the Directed Energy Professional Society meeting in Newton.

Before finishing a tour as a DARPA program manager two years ago, Stickley asked 10 senior Pentagon officials why high-energy lasers hadn't made it to the battlefield. "Lack of credibility" came near the top of his list of problems. "Laser zealots were at least an order of magnitude worse than the usual technology optimists," one official told Stickley, rating the exaggeration factor as 400 percent for lasers and 20 percent for other technologies.

Stickley spoke with authority--he's been around since the very early days of military laser research, and built the Air Force's first laser back in 1960, using Theodore Maiman's ruby-laser design. We've learned a lot about lasers since then, and today's plans for solid-state laser weapons described in my July feature sound more credible than those of decades ago -- but how will they sound in 2060?

(Note- Stickley is a consultant, listing his affiliation as CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida)


-- Jeff Hecht
   Newton, Mass.


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