Electronics: from “micro” to “nano” and further levels…
Mr.Verner, what made you interested in Moore’s Law, which was repeatedly criticized by skeptics, and which has expired by the present?
Moore’s merit was that he empirically determined and formulated regularities in the development rate of electronics. His role should not be exaggerated, but should not be underestimated either. Moore’s Law is sometimes said to have created electronic industry, but, in fact, it is quite contrary: people working in the industry made the trend noted by Moore last with their hard work and enthusiasm. For several decades, however, Moore’s law played the role of a slogan in the development of electronics and defined its goals. Moreover, an important factor was the public opinion that the principles formulated by Moore were clear and understood not only by industry professionals, but also by a wide range of users, which further contributed to the market growth. It is no exaggeration that Moore’s Law has played a significant role in the formation of the modern information society.
The concept of classical principles is vague and arbitrary in relation to the development of electronics, because for decades it was based inter alia on quantum physics. I believe that the physical basis will expand in the future, for example, besides the electron-hole transition, tunneling effects and other physical phenomena will be increasingly used, too. One of the promising areas is the development of optoelectronics replacing electrical transmission of information using high-speed optical technologies. When memory chips were created, good results were achieved by using magnetic systems or devices with phase transformation. However, new techniques allow us to solve a relatively narrow scope of tasks. No universal alternative to a transistor, ensuring greater efficiency of information storage and processing, has been discovered so far.
What new opportunities appear in electronics with the development of nanotechnology?
The manufacture of today’s integral circuits switched to a nanolevel quite a long time ago. Moreover, the minimum size of elements has already reached 5 nm, while the physically possible limit is about 4 nm. The use of nanomaterials is expanding both in the creation of active areas in devices and, for example, in the production of resists. Interesting perspectives are opening up with the use of carbon nanomaterials, which oftentimes provide advantages in speed, conductivity, etc., though in practice it is only about their integration into a semiconductor device, rather than replacing the latter. Again, a real alternative to the transistors is not yet found; for example, the prospects of vacuum electronics based on carbon nanotubes as such, in my opinion, are not clear.
Is it possible in your opinion to distinguish between “traditional” electronics and nanoelectronics?
From a formal point of view, almost all modern electronics relate to the nanotechnology field, because the characteristic dimensions of functional elements already went beyond the provisional threshold of 100 nm quite a long time ago. However, regarding a number of features, you can try to distinguish between classical solutions that appeared in the era of micro-scale and fundamentally new technologies. In particular, if classical solutions are characterized by “top-down” development, i.e. gradual decrease in the size of structures, new solutions are developing “bottom-up” – via improvements of assembly and growth techniques, and other ways of creating systems from nanoscale elements.
What material impact do infrastructural constraints have on the introduction of new technologies?
Infrastructure is crucial. Huge amounts of money was invested in it, so a key issue when introducing new solutions is their compatibility with the existing technologies. An illustrative example in this regard is the production of MEMS. The current growth rate in this area became possible because this technology is highly compatible with the existing industry. When the demand started growing for sensors used in a variety of automated control systems, the manufacture of MEMS began to develop dramatically – currently, most of the major manufacturers of electronic components have their own units with appropriate expertise. Other fast growing areas, such as flexible and printed electronics or displays based on organic light-emitting diodes, are also characterized by either relative cheapness of creating a new production infrastructure, or by full / partial compatibility with the traditional technologies.
From the point of view of organizational infrastructure, I am a supporter of the principles used in Soviet times. Then, there existed a system of research centers, including research institutes with their own pilot production facilities and well-established links with mass production. It was quite a flexible system, which was well built, so it is a pity that so many of the old practices in the area of infrastructure have been undeservedly forgotten.
What do you think about the near future prospects of electronics development?
At present, difficulties are related to the fact that technological innovations, such as new methods of lithography, new platelets, etc. require a substantial increase in the cost of the entire production. Thus, a philosophical question is, “to what extent does the humanity need to maintain the technology development pace that was once set by Moore’s Law?” Maybe, there is no particular need, because very good and well-proven solutions already exist? A lot of new ideas and areas have been generated theoretically, but in practice, most of them are not ready to compete with existing technologies and, at best, are used to solve very narrow specific tasks. For example, there are spectacular ideas and excellent scientific results in the field of quantum computing, but a functioning quantum computer has not yet been created, and it is not obvious if people will soon require it.
One of the significant changes, which occurred in the past 10 to 20 years, was gaining the foreground role in the market of mass production, which became the major driving force behind the development of electronics. In the past, the priority issue was about the creation of supercomputers to resolve research problems. Currently, the issue is about mobile devices that do not require high computing power and the implementation of the so-called “Internet of things” or “Internet for all”. Thus, the urgent task is not only and not so much about the improvement of electronic components, but is more about the development of new application areas.
In summary, I would like to note that for the development of electronics it is very important to draw attention to its problems, challenges and opportunities, so the industry is replenished with new specialists. In this regard, it is hard to overestimate the role of mass media, in particular, industry publications.
Thanks for the interesting story.
The interview was taken by D.Gudilin