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IBM Pours $3 Billion Into Future of Nanoelectronics

IBM researchers reveal perspectives on future of nanomaterials and nanomanufacturing

3 min read

IBM Pours $3 Billion Into Future of Nanoelectronics
Illustration: Randi Klett

We have been hearing the obituaries for complimentary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) for twenty years now. But it’s still here and holding out to the bitter end it seems. Despite needing ever more ingenious engineering twists to keep it going, CMOS will eventually fall victim to Moore’s Law as it continues its march towards ever smaller transistor dimensions.

IBM has stepped up to face this growing issue with the announcement this week that it will be spending US $3 billion over the next five years on a project it has dubbed “7nm and Beyond”.  Big Blue’s aim will be to pursue ways to bring traditional silicon-based technologies to ever smaller dimensions and simultaneously develop alternative materials, namely carbon nanotubes, graphene, and other nanomaterials.

The $3 billion is equivalent to half of all IBM's R&D expenditure last year, but others have pointed out that this amount of funding spread out over five years essentially maintains IBM's current chip research spending levels.

Nonetheless, for a company that has reportedly been trying to sell off its hardware business, this is a significant investment—whether it’s aimed at boosting the slumping hardware unit to achieve its old glory or polishing it up for a sale.

While this may be a matter of fascinating speculation for investors, the impact on nanotechnology development  is going to be significant. To get a better sense of what it all means, I was able to talk to some of the key figures of IBM’s push in nanotechnology research.

I conducted e-mail interviews with Tze-Chiang (T.C.) Chen, vice president science & technology, IBM Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center and Wilfried Haensch, senior manager, physics and materials for logic and communications, IBM Research.

Silicon versus Nanomaterials

First, I wanted to get a sense for how long IBM envisioned sticking with silicon and when they expected the company would permanently make the move away from CMOS to alternative nanomaterials. Unfortunately, as expected, I didn’t get solid answers, except for them to say that new manufacturing tools and techniques need to be developed now.

“We anticipate that in order to scale to 7 nanometers and perhaps below for the industry, we will need to have the semiconductor architectures and new manufacturing tools and techniques in place by the end of the decade,” said Chen in an e-mail interview. “That's why it is critical for us to make the significant investment now into the research and early stage development to demonstrate what 7nm innovations will be useful before it can even be commercialized.”

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Manufacturing Techniques

I was particularly interested in the “beyond” part of the project, which implied dimensions below 7nm and where things start to get really tricky for traditional top-down manufacturing techniques, like lithography.  Despite all the continued advances, some have argued that once you get below 3nm top-down manufacturing techniques are just not viable.

I didn’t get a clear response as to whether IBM agreed with the assessment that at the 3-nm threshold top-down manufacturing fails to be effective for large scale manufacturing, but I did get the answer that IBM is pursuing both top-down and bottom-up manufacturing techniques. That’s apparent by the body of research they’ve published, but what we still don’t know is how far they intend to push lithography below 7 nm for large-scale chip production.

Carbon Nanotubes versus Graphene

In the press release, IBM provides details on two of the favored nanomaterials of the last decade: carbon nanotubes and graphene.

With carbon nanotubes (CNTs), points out its recent success at producing the material with 99.99 percent purity. To clarify, Wilfried Haensch explained: “The 99.9 percent refers to the purity with respect to semiconductor tools. It means that out of 10,000 tubes 1 is metallic and this is what you want if you want to build devices. But we need to reach 999,999 and that is part of our current focus.”

This overcomes one of the big obstacles in carbon nanotube production: ensuring you get semiconducting or metallic versions. But what about the other obstacle: aligning the CNTs?

It turns out that the two are problems are related. “There are two approaches,” says Haensch. “One is to grow the nanotubes on a wafer and then transfer them. The challenge is you loose purity for semiconductor tubes.  One-third are metallic and two-thirds are semiconductor, so the metallic ones need to be burned and then you have randomness. We take the tubes and purify them first to remove the metallic, and use a self-assembly method to place them in the positions we would like to have them.”

Finally, with graphene I wanted to know what IBM saw as the material's role in electronics, especially because it lacks an inherent band gap and must have that property engineered into the material. For this, Haensch was direct and to the point: “We see an opportunity with graphene in RF electronics. We have shown that RF circuits can be manufactured on the back end of an existing CMOS process.” Not exactly a broad set of applications for graphene in electronics.

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