Monday, November 30, 2009

COMMENTARY - Ten emerging technologies to watch in 2010...

COMMENTARY - Ten emerging technologies to watch in 2010

By Peter Clarke
EE Times (11/18/09, 11:40:00 AM EST)

LONDON — EE Times has compiled a list of emerging technologies that we think will be worth watching out for in 2010.

Recessions are the times of change when R&D investments get pushed to the fore. It is well known that when markets and prosperity return they never return in exactly the same form that they went away.

We have deliberately favored the hardware- and physically based side of the technology landscape, although software is also likely to increase its impact and importance in 2010.

There are also some technology trends that are so self-evident and long-term that we have not listed them. We would include amongst these the need to reduce power consumption and the need to pursue low-carbon and reduced materials content solutions. We see these as drivers for some of the more detailed technologies we list below. We don't claim to have a perfectly accurate piezoelectric crystal ball, but some technologies and some technology providers are going to change the landscape in 2010. The ten technologies listed below, in no particular order, might just be part of our changing times.

1. Biofeedback or thought-control of electronics

A number of companies and research institutions have shown how brain waves, captured using sensors on a skull cap or head-set, can be used to control computer systems. The applications are medical — giving communications and control of the environment to heavily disabled people — military and, increasingly, in consumer and computer games control interfaces. This may seem like science fiction but the thought-control human-computer interface is here now and is being promoted by companies such as Emotiv Systems Inc. (San Francisco, Calif.).

2. Printed electronics

The possibility of the rapid printing of multiple conductive, insulating and semiconductive layers to form electronic circuits holds out the prospect of much lower cost ICs than those prepared by conventional fabrication methods. Printing semiconductors usually implies the use of organic materials (although see below) with very different performance to silicon. It is also implies much larger minimum geometries than can be attained in silicon. But there are applications that can benefit from modest performance on flexible subtrates at low cost; the RFID tag is one and the active-matrix backplane for displays is another.

Kovio Inc. (Milpitas, Calif.), a privately-held pioneer in printed silicon electronics, has been plowing the printed electronics furrow since the company was founded in 2001, and in July 2009 announced that it had raised $20 million in Series E financing. Kovio said it planned to use the money to commence volume shipments of its Kovio RF barcodes.

3. Plastic memory

This is allied to printed electronics as it may well be produced using printing, it may well have modest performance compared to silicon, but it is expected to be low cost. One pioneer in this area is Thin Film Electronics ASA (Oslo, Norway) which has tried for a number of years to get the technology out the door and spent some time working with Intel.

The technology is based on polythiophenes, a family of polymers that display ferroelectric properties. The memories are rewritable, non-volatile, show more than ten years data retention and one million cycles, according to Thin Film Electronics. In September 2009 PolyIC GmbH & Co. KG (Fuerth, Germany) used the technology to make a 20-bit memory on a roll-to-roll line using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as the substrate.

4. Maskless lithography

For many people the main question that hangs over semiconductor lithography is when will extreme ultra violet lithography take over from immersion lithography? But there is a dark horse in the race, maskless lithography based on an electron beam, which is being pioneered by Mapper Lithography BV (Delft, The Netherlands).

In July 2009 Mapper shipped a 300-mm electron-beam lithography platform to CEA-Leti in Grenoble, France, where it was set to be used for R&D by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. TSMC is one of the key researchers of lithography and the company's interest in the Mapper technology is at the very least keeping the likes of ASML and Nikon working hard.

5. Parallel processing

This technology is already here in the form of the dual- and quad-core PC processors and the multicore heterogeneous processors used for embedded applications. However, there is as yet little formal understanding of how multiple processors will be programmed and used for the utmost computational and power efficiency.

This is one of the core problems in Information Technology that has faced the industry since the advent of the processor and we are still working away at it. Initiatives such as OpenCL and Cuda speak to that as do the prospect of using graphics processors as general purpose processors, as well as FPGAs and software programmable processor arrays. We expect a lot more activity in 2010.

6. Energy harvesting

Energy harvesting is not a new idea. We have had the motion-powered wristwatch for many years. But as electronic circuits move from consuming milliwatts to consuming microwatts an interesting thing happens. It becomes possible to contemplate drawing power for those circuits, not from the electricity grid or from a battery but from a variety of ambient phenomena. And this is expected to have far-reaching impact.

One of the early applications is to have vibration-powered, wireless sensors in place on machinery, in vehicles. The battery-less aspect of such sensors removes the need for maintenance. EnOcean GmbH (oberhaching, Germany) has pioneered the use of wireless, batteryless switches for use in building automation and is now helping to drive the EnOcean Alliance to form standards.

Nokia is looking at energy harvesting in the context of the mobile phone but has stressed it has no prototype as yet. But in 2010 all makers of mobile equipment have to be looking at energy harvesting to, at least, augment the battery life of their equipment.

7. Bio-electronics and wetware

This might be a bit more on the research side than the development side for 2010, but the coming together of the biological and the electronic is ripe for exploitation. We are used to the inclusion of hardware within animals in the form of under-the-skin tags for animals and heart pacemakers for human beings and the need to improve and reduce the cost of medical care is being felt acutely.

As the industry's capabilities in MEMS and organic electronics fabrication improves the scope for integration of tissues and electronic circuitry increases. Lab-on-a-chip is one manifestation of the technology, and here is an example from IBM disclosed recently, but it is also possible to grow biological cells on electronically addressable substrates. The opportunities for in-vitro diagnostics are clear. Information about the electrical behavior of individual cells and their reactions to drugs is a major focus for research in cardiac and neural ailments such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.

So, in short, we expect a lot of research and the continued emergence of bio-electronics as a mainstream activity.

8. Resistive RAM or the memristor

The pursuit of the universal memory goes on. It needs to be simple like a DRAM, or preferably even simpler as those capacitors are a problem to scaling. It needs to be able to retain data for years with the power off and able to be used millions of times. It needs to be simple to make using conventional methods and with materials that are not out of place in conventional wafer fabs. And we still haven't found it yet.

Or have we?

In 2009 Unity Semiconductor Corp. emerged from seven years of stealthy research with its conductive metal oxide (CMOx) technology, although we are pleased to note that EE Times was reporting on Unity in April 2006. But 2009 has also seen the arrival on our radar screens of 4DS Inc., Qs Semiconductor Corp. and Adesto Technologies Inc.

We are also aware that many of the larger IDMs are active in RRAM. And the reference to the memristor is because two-terminal devices that display a memory-effect in their resistance characteristic are effectively the practical implementation of the theoretical work, championed by Hewlett-Packard Labs, on the memristor, often described as the fourth passive circuit element after resistors, capacitors and inductors.

9. The through-silicon via

The depth of the interconnect stack on top of the leading-edge silicon surface is deep and can vary markedly in minimum geometry. We have speculated that this could result in a splitting of front-end fab production into surface and local interconnect followed by higher stack connection, possibly in different wafer fabs.

The desire, for marketing as well as technical reasons, to mount multiple die in single packages is also driving a need for more sophisticated interconnect and the arrival of the through-silicon-via passing completely through a silicon wafer or die is clearly important in creating 3-D packages.

In May 2009 Austriamicrosystems started producing TSV parts on a foundry basis, targeting suppliers of devices for 3-D integration of CMOS ICs and sensor components. Expect more of the same in 2010.

10. Various battery technologies

We have become so used to Moore's law and the steady miniaturization of microelectronics it is easy to become frustrated with a technology that does not double in performance every two years. But battery technology is relatively mature and is not driven by the same forces as the integrated circuit. Indeed if energy storage becomes too dense it can become dangerous.

Nonetheless we all rely increasingly on batteries for energy storage and to power our various gadgets. Indeed it is arguable that without further breakthroughs in battery technology for electric vehicles the compatibility of the automobile and sustainable green transportation is in jeopardy. So the pressure is on.

Recent spins on nickel- and lithium-based battery chemistries, such as nickel oxyhydroxide, olivine-type lithium iron phosphate and nanowires, are gunning to displace the venerable but problematic alkaline-manganese dioxide formulations. ReVolt Technology, a developer of rechargeable zinc-air batteries, has selected Portland, Oregon as the location for its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing center. We expect similar developments to come on apace in 2010, and every smart battery is set to provide a power management IC opportunity.


2010 will be an interesting year.  I can't wait!  B-)


Robert Stretton
RBS Enterprises

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