New Terms, New Problems

Business changes are forcing companies to examine advanced research much more closely.


At the distant forefront of research there is very little marketing. After all, what’s the point? Until recently, much of this stuff was theoretical physics, and products weren’t even a consideration.

It wasn’t until the past decade when we could actually see atoms. We had to theorize them. And it wasn’t until the past few years when we actually began taking stacked die seriously. But there are some new terms beginning to emerge on the distant horizon, and they indicate not only the marketing opportunities that ultimately may follow but the engineering challenges, as well.

One of the new terms to emerge is “tunnel FETs,” or TFETs. This fits right in with nanowires as a possible technology that will need to be considered for the most advanced digital processes when we begin approaching the next couple nodes following 14nm.

A tunnel FET, according to an Imec research paper, will include multiple horizontal gates, which will be critical for the ultra-low power and ultra-low voltage operation. It also has begun showing up in future projections at TSMC.

Carbon nanowires have been talked about for some time. Research is now beginning to ramp up on this technology. These are extremely thin wires—some even thinner than 1nm—that will be essential when process geometries shrink down to the sub-10nm range. This will create all sorts of interesting effects of course, many of which we haven’t even considered.

While this stuff may seem academic at this point, consider that the major foundries are working on 20nm, with lots of advanced designs in the pipeline at 28nm. Memory is expected to be below 20nm by next year, and work has already begun on 14nm—which for many applications may be the next node after 28nm.

This is the new wrinkle in design. Node skipping has become rampant because of the long tail of derivative designs required by a massive design investment. That economic shift will make these terms more relevant much more quickly, which means what was one distant theoretical research will now become required reading and research for companies looking to stay at the forefront of Moore’s Law. And it will even be relevant for companies working on stacked die that build on these advanced digital platforms.

Research has never had such immediate consequences. The only question now is what those consequences will be.

–Ed Sperling