Nanoelectronics: Go Small or Go Home
The “Future,” such a pristine word that is described as a place with flying cars, AI and robotic workers and more Sci-Fi elements. But what if I told you, that we are already in The “Future.”
Take a moment to look around the room or space you are in, and think about how many of them incorporate electricity, a motherboard or any other electronic component. Now comparing this to 25 years ago, it is a jump from almost nothing to dozens and possibly even hundreds. Back then, this is “The Future” everyone was dreaming of. All due to electronics.
Electronic devices have consumed our world, disrupting every industry and creating possibilities and even whole new technologies that didn’t exist before.
Believe me, it is not going to stop anytime soon. The next “mode of transport” electronics are using to continue to revolutionize our society is to be found, nowhere. Ok ok, it is somewhere, but somewhere you need a high-powered microscope to access: at the Nanoscale.
As you will read soon enough, Nanotechnology and Electronics, or Nanoelectronics, combine the benefits of each, while leaving out the drawbacks, allowing for some truly mind-boggling applications.
What is Nanotechnology:
The infamous Nanotechnology that I’m sure everyone has heard off. Nanotechnology is the control and fabrication of all devices at the Nanoscale, which is anything between 1 and 100 nanometres. 1 nanometre is one-billionth of a meter. To put that in perspective, a single sheet of paper is between 75,000 and 100,000 nanometres thick.
The reason Nanotech has become so popular and is being heavily developed is that the physical and chemical properties of matter change and can be manipulated at the nanoscale.
Examples of these properties are strength, reactions with the light spectrum, reactivity, melting and boiling point and more.
Using this, we are able to transition into the super cool, science fiction applications that we have been dreaming about.
Why the Nano in Nanoelectronics?
In order to understand and improve for the future, we first have to take a quick look at the past and the history of electronics.
It’s 1946. The ENIAC (world’s first computer) has just been developed. A major milestone for all of humanity. However, the computer takes up an entire basement and was only able to solve computational problems, for which it had to be re-wired for each individual problem.
Fast forward to 1975. The IBM 5100, the first laptop is invented. Once again a revolutionary achievement that transferred a room-filling computer onto one that fits on a desk. This machine had over 100 applications for math, statistics and financial analysis.
Now think of today. One of the most powerful devices ever created fits in your pocket. I don’t think I need to explain the capabilities of a smartphone.
When looking back at all of these, the one connection is between size and performance. From large and inefficient, to medium and somewhat capable of solving problems, to now extremely tiny and can run thousands of programs at once with a high-tech camera, facial recognition and more.
Breaking down why this is the case, the size of the motherboard and the electrical components are getting smaller allowing more of them to be used, more efficiently.
The trend for the number of transistors, a vital component in an electrical circuit, and therefore the level of performance is called Moore’s Law.
The almighty, the fabled Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is a prediction that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit, doubles about every two years.
In order to maintain the slope of the law, we need to go smaller. We are currently at a stage where we are transitioning from transistors in the millimetres to them in the nanoscale. As we continue to innovate in electronics, we need to keep getting smaller and smaller, thus Nanoelectronics.
Nanomaterials (materials in the nanoscale) are used due to the bottom line that a lot of their properties can be manipulated. This can create amazing catalysts, convert insulators to conductors and more. Now it’s time to check out some of the incredible innovations that have been made in the field of Nanoelectronics.
There are currently six main methods of building/creating the materials in Nanoelectronics:
- Electron Beam Lithography
- X-ray Lithography
- Scanning Probe Microscope Lithography
- Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography
- Nanoimprint Lithography
- Dip-Pen Lithography
Electron Beam, X-ray and Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography use a beam of electrons, X-rays or a beam of UV light to etch and/or carve and/or burn features as small as 20nm in a material.
Scanning Probe Microscope Lithography uses the electric field created by a Scanning Probe Microscope to etch patterns and features in the material.
Nanoimprint Lithography uses a mould to stamp the pattern into the material, producing features under 10nm.
Dip-Pen Nanolithography uses an atomic force microscope to build the material into the desired shape and features. The molecules are picked up by the microscope and “written” onto previous ones.
Simply put, a Nanowire is a wire with a width of 30–60 nanometres, resulting in an unexplainably great length-to-width ratio. One unique thing about them is that they can act as an insulator, semiconductor or conductor.
Nanowires, and Nanoelectronics in general, go hand in hand with Quantum Computing, which uses the abnormal phenomena of quantum mechanics at the Nanoscale, for computation.
One revolutionary example of Nanowires and Quantum Computer is that they can act as superconductors at near Absolute Zero. A superconductor a material that conducts electrons without any resistance and no energy dissipation. In other words, Nanowires can conduct electricity without losing any of it as heat, sound or any other form.
Nanowire superconductivity opens countless possibilities for computers to perform at incredibly high efficiencies, allowing for much more advanced computing and problem-solving.
Fibre-optic nanowires are a very specific application of Nanowires that we will refer more to in Nanophotonics.
Continuing in Nanoelectronics, Nanowires can be applied to increase the performance and capability of almost every single electrical component, especially microprocessors and transistors.
Another fairly obvious application is in robotics, that incorporating more transistors and much faster delivery of information will produce new generations of improvements in robotics.
Finishing off are the applications is in the medical industry. Nanowires can be incorporated into, and even can fully create organs for organ implants, that also reduces the risk of implant failure. It is super cool and deserves a whole other article about it. The last application is Nanowires in STEM Cells.
All good things must come to an end, and Nanowires has its share of problems. Mass production is one of them. Nanowire assembly is extremely expensive and there is currently no way of mass-producing Nanowires. However, the two main ways of producing them are Chemical Vapour Deposition and Photolithography.
Chemical Vapour Deposition can build Nanowires from gas. Oversimplified, it starts off with catalysts being placed on a base and in a room with the gas form of the desired material (ex. Silicon). Gas atoms attach onto the catalysts, then more atoms attach to the previous atoms and so on, ending up with a Nanowire.
Photolithography produces Nanowires from a large amount of the material. In simple terms, the way it works is it uses extreme heat to burn a mould into a stamp, then pressing the mould against the desired material (ex. Silicon). Lastly, fill the sections with the catalysts in a liquid form.
Another drawback is that even though Nanowire transistors are several times better than current ones, assembling Nanowires into transistors is once again incredibly difficult.
Nanofibres are very similar to Nanowires, except instead of conducting electricity, it is simply a fibre at the Nanoscale. However, it does still have some incredible applications.
One of the world’s most pressing problems is energy storage, and more importantly, batteries. Current batteries are not nearly as efficient as we need them to be and not capable of storing enough energy.
Nanotechnology to the rescue! Nanofibre-Silicon-Anodes can store four times the traditional amount of energy and decrease costs.
The next application is applicable everywhere but holds a lot of promise in the Internet of Things. Using nanofibres, scientists were able to create a colour-changing, chemical vapour sensor.
Another extremely unique and fairly recent application is in energy generation. Nanofibres can be incorporated into clothes to harvest Kinetic energy through Piezoelectric materials.
Once again arriving back at Quantum Computing, Quantum Dots are semiconductor particles that are a couple of nanometres in size. The real game-changers are the quantum phenomena that occur at this level.
The major application of Quantum Dots and Electronics is in LCD Displays. Using quantum dots, red, green, blue and a combination of these can be used to convert white backlight into colours. The benefits of using Quantum Dots is that they physically emit light as well, requiring less energy for the backlight and reducing costs. Another benefit is that it produces brighter and more vibrant colours. Apart from reducing energy costs, production costs will also decrease.
Graphene is a single layer thick sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in tessallated hexagons, with extremely strong bonds between each atom. This creates incredible properties of strength, flexibility, weight and conductivity.
By far the most common use of graphene is in Carbon Nanotubes. If you have not heard of them, I strongly recommend taking some time to research and understand, arguably the most revolutionary material in history.
Unfortunately, Carbon Nanotubes do not have a lot of applications in electronics, but lucky for us, Graphene does.
Firstly we have Graphene Processors. Graphene has a much higher thermal conductivity than silicon, which is what is currently used, allowing for Graphene and Copper to dissipate heat rather than wasting it. Up to 30% more improvement in heat loss due to Graphene. Another useful property is that less Graphene can reach much higher frequencies, which opened the possibility to create a logic gate with only three Graphene processors versus the previous eight Silicon ones.
On the topic of logic gates, the next application is dealing with Quantum logic gates. To understand that, you first need to understand how Quantum Computing works. Quantum Computing is based on a couple of major phenomena, one of them being Superposition.
Oversimplified, Superposition is the ability of a system to be in multiple states at the same time, until measured. For example, Quantum Bits (Qubits) can not only store binary information as 0 or 1, but rather 0 and 1 at the same time. In order for Superposition to function, you need Quantum logic gates to measure and change the states of the Qubit.
Graphene can solve this by using Graphene Nanoribbons that are brought closer together, allowing the plasmonic nodes to be coupled to each other. The last application in the intersection of Graphene and Quantum Computing is that it opens the never-before possibility of Quantum Computers operating at room temperature.
It is important to note that replacing Silicon would not only be in processors but in overall electronics as well.
Moving on, there are several more specific applications:
- Charging eclectic cars
- Unbreakable phone screens
- Increasing solar cell efficiency
Nanophotonics in electronics is the specific science of incorporating optics on a computer chip that can send much higher volumes of data at much faster speeds.
It functions primarily based on a Nano-antenna that can convert between micrometre optical waves and data for transistors. The antenna can also produce light if inputted with energy.
IBM created a prototype of this with an antenna that can communicate information through light.
Ending off with a mind-blowing innovation: A Nano-biological-computer! Essentially it is a type of Quantum parallel computer that uses proteins to function.
A classic computer is only able to do one task at a time, but it switches between tasks about 2.5 billion times a second (for a pretty low-end computer). A parallel computer is a computer that is able to perform multiple tasks at the same time or solve multiple problems at the same time.
Now comes the time to reveal the mystery behind the magic. This computer uses a protein called Myosin. Myosin is used in our muscles to convert chemical energy into mechanical energy. It uses Myosin to guide protein filament through a network of nano-channels. Each junction has specific requirements in order to pass through, with each path equaling one output of the computational problem.
This computer has been rigorously tested and developed until finally being proven to work. Estimated time until it hits the market is a decade.
There are several benefits to this type of computer. Firstly, it is much low-costing because all of the crucial components are found in nature. Nano-bio computers operate on much, much, much less energy, using less than 1% of the energy used by current transistors. A common comparison to this is Quantum Computers, but these are more practical because Quantum Computers require almost Absolute Zero conditions.
Time for Aahaan’s Opinion:
I think that Nanoelectronics has the potential to be the biggest breakthrough in electronics and devices since Quantum Computing. The truth is that in today’s world, electronics are everywhere. When electronics are everywhere (including an electric toilet seat someone told me about!), Nanoelectronics are everywhere and therefore have the potential to disrupt everywhere.
For example, let’s look at the medical industry. A big application is robotic surgery or robotic-assisted surgery. It uses electronics to make the robots function and carry out the surgery. Now imagine using Nanowires, or a Graphene processor that would allow more efficient, lower-costing and more energy-efficient procedures. Flipping gears, let's look at a major global problem: poverty. Breaking it down further one aspect of poverty is lack of access to clean water. Current technology has been used for desalinization and filtering, but it is inefficient and expensive. Using nanofibres for the mesh and/or graphene for the processor and microchip could decrease the cost significantly and make it more efficient. This would provide more clean, fresh water to people struggling in poverty.
This leads me to my next point, the three technologies and innovations that I think have the biggest impact and are most applicable (in Nanoelectronics) are Graphene in processors and other electrical components, Nanowires in general and Nano-Silicon-Anode batteries in specific.
While there are hundreds of other emerging technologies, electronics are the fundamentals for all of them, meaning that incredible advancements like the ones mentioned here today, light the way for the future of all technology.