Material sciences innovation brings us closer to ‘anywhere computing’

Looking ahead: Gary Patton, Head, IBM’s research and development operations, is excited about the possibilities flexible wafers offer. Photo: Deepa Kurup

When Gary Patton pulls a thin, round wafer-like sheet from his coat pocket, he makes no attempts to conceal his excitement.

“It’s cutting-edge innovation!” says the man who heads IBM’s research and development operations worldwide, as he holds out what seems like a thin, metallic sheet. Then, with childlike excitement, he folds the circular sheet into a neat triangle, then unfolds it and rolls it into a thin cigarette.

The metallic sheet that Dr. Patton is gung-ho about represents a major breakthrough in material sciences, one that will drive high-performance computing to a new level, ushering in a new paradigm in silicon and electronic circuits. A closer look at the round patch reveals that beneath the shiny surface is an intricate network of circuits that looks much like your regular printed circuit board.


Made of silicon, this wafer, he says, holds the future. Also called flexible circuits, these, for now, are a huge step for portable computing, but the possibilities are endless.

They can power your mobile devices, you can have embedded electronics in your body, say to monitor health parameters, or even actively make biomedical interventions, Dr. Patton told The Hindu on the sidelines of the Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Associations (IESA) summit here last month. This, he says, will allow for products that will usher in the era of ‘anywhere computing’, the stuff that we’ve only read abut in futuristic literature or sci-fi.


So what’s this flexible wafer all about? Silicon wafers are typically hard and thick structures, processed in large fabs to make integrated circuits and other micro-devices. In IBM’s research centre, Dr. Patton explains, scientists have selectively cleaved the silicon substrate into a “very, very thin layer, thinner than paper”. “When we did this, we found that the characteristics of the material did not change significantly. It’s really a major breakthrough; it’s the stuff of sci-fi,” he gushes. The research, he said, suggests that such wafers can be made with conventional processes at room temperature, and the process is entirely scalable. But how long will it be before something like this takes the form of a product? “Not too long.”

This was among the key recent breakthroughs demonstrated by IBM at the Common Platform Technology Forum earlier this year. Other exciting systems on insulator (SOI) research showcased included breakthroughs in the field of carbon nanotubes and silicon nanophotonics.


Dr. Patton said that the semiconductor industry is at “a significant transition point”, where process engineering has reached the limit of being able to engineer material by changing fundamental properties of silicon by introducing strain or using High K metal gates to change the properties of gate oxides; all technical processes that were used up until now to fuel growth in computing power. Currently, Dr. Patton said, the semiconductor industry is in what he calls the 3D era, where devices known as Fin-Fets are being integrated in 3D.

“This is going to result in a real explosion in the next decade in the mobile interconnect of devices. That will take us into 2020, but at some point 3D will run its course and we’ll hit the atomic dimension limit. By then, we’ll be going to new types of materials, and this is where we’ll come into the nanotechnology era… things like carbon nanotubes, silicon nanowires or even the use of photonics where light will replace conventional electrical signals. These will have tremendous benefits in improving the speed of the circuit.”

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But what was driving this explosion in demand for computing power, asked Dr. Patton, speaking at the IESA summit. He said it was “about simple economics, at the end of the day.” He explained: “You can make smaller features, you get better performance, you get better cost per function and you can do more applications. What you can do on the phone has grown dramatically over the last few years and, guess what, we have an explosion in the market.

“Consider the difference in transistor price. The relative price of a transistor has gone down by five orders of magnitude over the last 30 years, while the number of transistors consumed per year has gone up by six orders of magnitude over the same period. At the end of the day, it’s all about economics.”

Read more . . .


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