Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All together now
All together now
Keywords: Interviews, Agilent, Semiconductors, Electronics industry
Agilent Labs' Jim Hollenhorst talks about the future of the electronic- and semiconductor-device industry as well as the "new era" of integration occurring at the intersection of electronics and life sciences.
Long a cornerstone of Agilent Technologies, electronics technologies have advanced steadily over the past 30 years, enabled in part by Moore's Law, the industry benchmark that predicts that the number of transistors integrated on state-of-the-art silicon chips will double every 18 months. This exponential growth is unprecedented in human history. It cannot last forever, but for now there is little indication that this rapid rate of technological advancement will slow any time soon. While it has become possible to put billions of transistors on a silicon chip running at billions of cycles per second, finding ways to maximise the use of this enormous capability has driven the research efforts of Agilent Labs. Jim Hollenhorst, Director of the Electronic Research Lab at Agilent Labs, talks about integrating diverse technologies into semiconductor devices and melding disparate research disciplines such as electronics and life sciences.
Q: We hear a lot about the "new era" of integration. Why is integration important and what technology breakthroughs will be possible through the innovative use of integration?
Fundamentally, miniaturisation and integration are the key factors that have fuelled the tremendous growth of electronics technology. The cost of a silicon wafer does not depend on the number of transistors we put on it. As we learn to make smaller transistors, we can build more complex circuits at no extra cost. As a bonus, smaller transistors actually work better. As we put transistors closer together, the propagation delay between circuits gets smaller. The result is that, even though our circuits are vastly more complex, they run at higher speeds.
For me, the real excitement comes in two areas. First, we have only scratched the surface of what can be built with billions of transistors. Most of those transistors are used for only one thing, semiconductor memory. As we learn to build ever more complex circuits, the opportunities are, without exaggeration, endless.
Second, the vast majority of the work on integration has fuelled only one technology, digital metal oxide semiconductor (MOS). When I refer to the "new era," I am talking about applying the lessons of integration to a much more diverse set of applications and technologies including analogue and mixed-signal electronics, CMOS imagers, compound semiconductors, optoelectronics, microelectromechanical systems, and microfluidics, just to cite a few.
Finally, miniaturisation has led us inexorably to the realm of dimensions measured in nanometers. As we learn to control nature and engineer structures at the nanoscale, we will see new behaviour determined by the atomic structure of matter and the laws of quantum mechanics. There is no telling what new innovations will come from an exploration of this realm.
Q: What are some challenges to making those advancements?
That is a great question. To some extent we are victims of our own success. Because we've been riding this exponential for so long, people expect it to continue and think it must come easily – "just wait for a year to pass, and everything will be faster and cheaper". Unfortunately, it is not that simple. At every stage along the road, the challenges looked almost insurmountable. Today, we do not know how to solve the problems of lithography, gate leakage, power dissipation, statistical variations, and so many other things. There is no shortage of ideas, and given the history of success, there is a high level of confidence that we can stay on track with Moore's Law for the next decade, albeit with many warning signs beyond that.
The challenge for engineered nanostructures is even more acute. At the nanoscale, it is no longer possible to think about materials as if they were continuous substances. We have to think about individual atoms. In a very tiny transistor, one atom too many or too few can spoil the desired behaviour. It is easy to draw a picture of an ideal nanopore or nanotransistor, and indeed many such pictures have appeared on the covers of Science and Nature, but a real one will not look at all like that picture. The challenge for nanostructures is to trick nature into putting every atom in the right place.
Q: What is the role of Agilent Labs in addressing these challenges?
The mainstream of the technology is miniaturisation of silicon transistors and circuits, particularly for digital electronics. What excites us at Agilent are the many challenges and opportunities in less mature areas of integration. For example, where can we apply the tools and tricks of the silicon integrated circuit industry to make interesting devices that can be used by Agilent's customers in test and measurement, communications, and life sciences? We will work on massive integration for mixed-signal systems. We will apply digital electronics to correct for non- ideal behaviour of analogue devices. We will exploit the burgeoning development of low-cost imagers based on CMOS active-pixel sensors. We will build electromechanical systems using the techniques of microfabrication. We will build increasingly complex and high-performance electronic and optical components using exotic semiconductors like indium phosphide and gallium arsenide. We will integrate chemical separation, chemical reactions, and chemical analysis into complex microfluidic circuits. Finally, we will explore the realm of nanoscale dimensions for new behaviour and new devices that can differentiate Agilent's products.
Q: What is your vision for integration?
In the future, we will have the capability to build devices and systems in which every atom is in the right place. We are decades away from that now, but are making progress. IBM Fellow Don Eigler has shown pictures in which the word IBM is spelled with atoms; but it is too expensive, it takes too long, and it does not do anything useful. We will develop methods of harnessing nature into putting atoms where we want them, without having to direct the placement of each atom. Biological systems do this already. If we can do this, we can make devices by the zillions that all behave identically, and do exactly what we designed them to do. By making things incredibly small, we will be able to exploit new behaviour that cannot be duplicated in the macroscopic world.
Q: What needs to be overcome for Agilent Labs to achieve this vision?
We'll start with baby steps. The nanopore project is using a focused ion beam to redeposit atoms to close up a tiny hole until it reaches the right size as determined by the flow of ions through the hole. In the carbon nanotube project, we are experimenting with catalytic particles that will nucleate the atom-by-atom growth of individual carbon molecules that we hope to incorporate into devices. When we have achieved the vision of atomically precise structures, we will look back on both these as primitive first steps.
Q: Could the Labs' innovations be applied in other fields beyond electronics?
Absolutely! This is the really exciting area for Agilent since we have such a diverse group of people and businesses. I am convinced that the most valuable innovations for our company will come at the intersections of traditional disciplines that have historically separated people who work on electronics from those who work on life science. As we have come to understand so much about the molecular basis of life, we know that living things are complex assemblages of nanosystems. If we can learn to engineer nanostructures, the applications will go far beyond electronics.
In more traditional areas, we have already seen examples in which our innovations in electronics have made contributions in life science. For example, our massively parallel analogue-to- digital converter is now used in mass spectrometers for proteomics, and our materials and microfabrication technologies have been applied to chemical analysis in a microfluidic device.
Q: With the technology that Agilent Labs is developing how will the lives of its users improve?
Much of what Agilent does in electronics is related to communications. I am an optimist about the impact of improved communications on the lives of everyone on the planet. Our global community will be greatly enriched by rapid communication and I am excited about the contribution of Agilent Labs to making that happen. As one trivial example, I've already seen people taking pictures at the talent show to send to Grandma using the embedded cell phone cameras that Agilent Labs helped develop. I hope in the future that we will make major contributions to personalised medicine, which will contribute directly to improving people's quality of life.
Q: What aspects of the future of the electronics industry do you find interesting?
It is that, after half a century of explosive growth, there is still no end in sight. Moore's Law will continue for many years to come; but even after it slows down, we will still have many decades of innovation, figuring out what to do with all that technology. The opportunity is even greater in applying electronics innovations to the maturing field of life sciences.
These are remarkable times in human history and we are very lucky to be living through them. A thousand years from now – if the computers let us survive – we will look back at the 20th and 21st centuries as the period with the most rapid improvement in technology, and we are the people doing it!