RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — So, as the world gets smaller are nanoelectronics the next “big” thing?

As devices from cell phones to hand-held computers and laptops get tinier, lighter, faster and smarter, they need more powerful and more miniscule chips. And two major organizations are teaming up to drive to accelerate research at universities where the drive to miniaturize processors continues.

In fact, the Semiconductor Industry Association predicts that microprocessors will be 15 times more powerful in 2016 than they are today. The costs of memory, meanwhile, will be 1/20th of today’s costs.

Will the Library of Congress be available on a PDA? Yes, and even more. Hello, Star Trek.

The drive for nano-development picked up steam last week when the Semiconductor Research Corporation and the National Science Foundation disclosed a new initiative to accelerate semiconductor research at the nation’s universities.

The SRC, which is based in RTP, and NSF launched the “Silicon Nanoelectronics and Beyond” partnership. The organizations said the intent is to increase research and development for “smarter, denser and cheaper” semiconductors.”

“By avoiding duplication and targeting priorities, this partnership will exceed the sum of what SRC and NSF could achieve on their own,” said Larry Sumney, president of the SRC, in a statement. ” Over the next several years, it is expected that NSF’s investments in this new initiative will see significant growth subject to (US government) budget approvals and Congressional appropriations.”

Nanoelectronics is a hot area. The state of Georgia recently announced plans to create a nano-center at Georgia Tech. And Wake Forest University disclosed plans last month to open its Center for Nanotechnology in December, having recruited a 15-member team away from Clemson University.

The SRC and NSF signed an agreement to pursue objectives outlined in a report titled the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors.

The NSF is expected to invest between $4 million and $8 million in silicon nanoelectronics research in 2004. Its annual budget is some $5.3 billion.

The Semiconductor Industry Association issued a statement supporting the partnership and the need for accelerated research.


What potential does nanotechnology hold?

“Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread,” the NSF says on its web site. “Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength.”

What can “nano” do for processors? Possibly, a great deal.

“Moore’s Law, which is the doubling of transistors every 18 months, has driven productivity improvements in our economy for decades, but it will be more difficult to achieve this as we approach the physical limits of our current chip-making process,” said George Scalise, president of the SIA. “Today’s announcement joins the industry and government resources to find replacement technologies that will allow continued increases in computing power for decades to come.”

The SRC will invest$40 million in university research this year and also manages the “Focus Center Research Program” which invested $24 million in 21 university research centers.

Forecast: Brisk growth for semiconductors

Also last week, the SIA forecast strong growth for the semiconductor industry over the next three years. Semiconductor spending should hit $163 billion this year, an increase of 15.8 percent despite the global economic slowdown, and revenues will increase another 19 percent — to $194.6 billion — in 2004. The SIA expects 5.8 percent growth, to $206.0 billion, in 2005, and another 6.6 percent surge, to $219.6 billion, in 2006.

“We are on an accelerated growth path and this is great news”, said John Daane, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Altera Corporation, who outlined the forecast at the SIA’s annual meeting. “Growth will be broad based across all markets.”

But Daane also warned that costs are “rapidly increasing” as semiconductor research advances. “We believe that this is going to result in some fundamental changes in our industry.” He said, adding: “Now, more than ever, semiconductor manufacturers are forced to closely evaluate the return on investment of each chip produced.”

For a detailed look at the SIA forecast, see:


NFS on Nanotechnology:

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.