Semiconductors The Power of Nanoelectronics – from Connecting to Improving Lives

Autor / Redakteur: Luc Van den hove* / Sebastian Gerstl

The semiconductor industry is heading for a bright future. The advantages of scaling, miniaturization and integration can drive innovation and growth beyond its traditional markets. The internet of things, the internet of healthy things and the internet of power are driving the continuous growth of the semiconductor industry if the right ecosystems dynamics are brought into place.

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Glimpse into imec's 300 mm Cleanroom: The trend lies in development of wearable technologies.
Glimpse into imec's 300 mm Cleanroom: The trend lies in development of wearable technologies.
(Bild: imec)

The semiconductor industry has always been a challenging industry. It is a very cyclical industry having huge ups and huge downs. But there has been one consistent trend. It has always battled back. It has experienced a healthy growth rate, a growth rate other industries envy us for.

One of the drivers for growth of our industry has for decades been the continuous reduction of the cost per function, which has enabled the tremendous explosion of increased functionality of the devices at acceptable cost. But for the first time, we seem not to be able to follow the traditional cost reduction per gate.

One of the major contributors to the cost explosion is the need for multiple patterning as from the 20nm node as a result of the late availability of EUV. This explains the tremendous pressure on making EUV ready for prime time. But there will be a continued drive for increased performance which will require more complex processes.

At the same time the cost of R&D, related to advancing process technology, continues to rise with a higher growth rate than the growth rate of the semiconductor industry turnover and hence the overall available R&D spending (which typically scales with the overall turnover). This significantly increases the barriers for companies to remain at the leading edge. So cost effective models to fuel innovation to the semiconductor industry will be extremely critical if we want to ensure further continued growth.

The semiconductor industry is heading for a bright future. There are tremendous opportunities which will pursue this continuous growth of our industry. The exploding mobile data communication market drags along a robust growth in mobile broadband services, creating huge opportunities for semiconductor companies to equip and implement next-generation wireless networks. In many markets, the 3G networks approach the limits of their broadband capacity. 4G is penetrating at rapid pace and 5G is already on the research agenda.

What 5G will bring is still unclear; it will not be an upgrade of the network as we know it today. It'll be a mesh of networks that connects everything and everyone: people, objects, sensors, tools, instruments. We are evolving towards an internet of everyTHING. It is expected that by 2020 100 billion computers, devices and sensors will be wirelessly connected. It’s hard to imagine a market where sensors, connectivity and mobility will not bring any added value.

With the possibility to integrate sensors in systems and new sensor technologies on the horizon, many new applications and services are arising, stimulating many economies.

79 GHz radar transmitter in 28-nm CMOS: on-chip-solutions will revolutionize all sections of our daily lifes
79 GHz radar transmitter in 28-nm CMOS: on-chip-solutions will revolutionize all sections of our daily lifes
(Bild: imec)

An industry that is rapidly being revolutionized is packaging and logistics, with new applications like real-time location of products, sophisticated authentication of goods, freshness detection of food, enhancing medication security, ... all enabled by the next wave of smart RFID tags that overcome the limitations of passive tags.

In the automotive sector there is the trend towards smart mobility with applications such as intelligent traffic and safety management, to advanced entertainment and information and sophisticated billing systems. All these applications require extensive connectivity both between vehicles and the smart infrastructures in which they operate. So sensor-based systems-on-chip have a central role to play in delivering the future of driving.

Driven by the global sustainable energy challenge and the technological evolutions in connected integrated sensor systems, the way we are generating and consuming energy is changing towards a smart energy system, the internet of power. What started with smart meters at home, which are currently experiencing a major market breakthrough, will evolve the coming years to a true smart energy system that implements not only energy savings in homes and commercial buildings, but integrates distributed energy generation based on renewable energy sources. An energy system that requires integrated intelligence to guarantee the balance between consumption and generation.

And also in the consumer electronics industry, we see many opportunities arising from integrating sensors in systems. The major trend in this market is wearable.

Startups, but also established system companies, come up with inventive and surprising ways to augment the human body with sensors and displays. Fitness devices make up the vast majority of the wearable technology market at the moment. In the consumer electronics, it’s all about more sensors, more data resolution, more functionality and more integration.

No doubt, the opportunity in wearable technology is large. Supported by the wearable trend in the consumer electronics market, with the massive introduction of fitness monitoring systems that readily communicate with health apps, I see many opportunities how wearable sensor technologies are one of the answers to deal with the rising healthcare costs. Today’s fitness gadgets are only a tip of the iceberg. There is much more to be expected, the internet of healthy things.

Nanoelectronics can bring disruptive innovation in healthcare. Disruptive innovation which is essential to create a sustainable healthcare system. Disruptive innovation which will break the traditional circle from a curing healthcare system to a more predictive and even preventive healthcare system.

Medical quality real-time monitoring systems could not only help you in keeping you healthy but they could revolutionize the treatment of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Diagnosed patients wouldn’t need to visit the hospital as often or for as long, while healthy people in high risk groups could benefit from unobtrusive systems that provide early warning of a condition developing.

Nanoelectronics, enabling miniaturization and integration, has the potential to shift the boundaries in medical diagnostics and tests. Imagine a silicon chip that can diagnose multiple diseases, that integrates multiple lab tests, for under 10 US-Dollar. Results are received in less than 10 minutes. It would bring multiple diagnostic and lab tests available, easy-to-use for anyone anywhere in the world. Such a lab on chip could also be a game-changer in drug discovery.

Imagine silicon chips that read single molecules of DNA in a massively parallel way with minimal preparatory steps. With these chips, DNA sequencing can become a routine diagnostic test. Or powerful chips that can image millions of cells per second at the microscopic level to hunt for rare but hugely important cells such as circulating tumor cells.

Thanks to the integration power of nanoelectronics, we can develop very powerful instrumentation at the lowest possible cost. Instrumentation that will facilitate both discovery in the lab and routine diagnostics anywhere and anytime.

To achieve breakthroughs in all these new application domains it is essential to find creative business models that can support such innovations. Real breakthroughs will occur only by bringing together the key players; and more and more we have to bring together key players from different industries since innovation and growth will come from connecting the unconnected. Innovation will come from bringing the advantages of scaling, miniaturization and integration to non-electronics markets. Innovation will come from imagining the power of our semiconductor technology way beyond our traditional borders.

* Luc Van den hove is president and CEO imec, Belgium