Little Shifts, Big Changes

The move to the next few process nodes will have a big effect on power, performance and design.


Every decade or so changes come along in IC design that look evolutionary, but which pack a wallop of side effects—some good, some bad, some challenging. But the next few process nodes, while evolutionary in many respects, changes will drive us deep into the realm of physics and mathematics.

Research is already well under way in these areas. TunnelFETs use electrons to literally tunnel through the walls of a device such as a nanotube or nanostructure. Atomic-level memory slashes the size and power needed to retain data. Foundries are seriously looking at self-assembly of atoms inside templates rather than waiting for EUV lithography. And substrates such as fully depleted silicon on insulator (SOI) with exotic thin films are looking far more promising for some pieces of an SoC.

Stacking of die will change the dynamics of who actually interacts with these advanced technologies and processes, as well. For the most part, it will be everyone. To gain economies of scale, platforms for highly advanced logic and memory will make their way into nearly all designs—amortized across many vendors’ packaged products rather than just a few. We saw this trend begin in cell phones and in processor cores. It will escalate over the next few process nodes, including a raft of knobs to turn for better performance or better energy efficiency—or both.

These knobs are the result of very significant changes at the most basic level. A better understanding of atomic structures and how to manipulate sub-atomic particles—in all likelihood we will actually be able to photograph them over the next decade, thereby turning theoretical physics into observable physics—opens the doors to vast new possibilities. Already graphene sheets—lattices that are one atom thick—are being doped to behave as if they are in magnetic fields even when they aren’t. That can affect the path of electrons, the speed at which they travel, and the energy required to manipulate them.

These changes also mean we can pack everything together more densely, move subatomic particles more effectively, and gain control of a world that until now has been largely a mathematical model. And it will carry over into the realm of software, which may be increasingly be as much about the control of those subatomic particles as the exchange and flow of bits of data.

All of this is evolutionary. It builds on research, manufacturing techniques, IC design, and the confluence of software, hardware, and physical problems that are already being addressed. But it’s all coming together at future process nodes, which will open the door into a much larger world that no one has ever effectively controlled before. The result, to say the least, should be very interesting.