Nanotech is on the road map

Updated: Jan 2 2006, 05:30am hrs
A handful of futuristic chip-making technologies at the atomic scale have been added to a planning effort that charts the future of the semiconductor manufacturing industry every two years.

The transition to a post-silicon era is forecast in a report, the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors. The report, produced by semiconductor industry associations from Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the US, is used by the industry as a planning tool to determine how best to spend R&D money.

The shift away from conventional silicon transistors has become an important part of the industry's thinking, though the use of nanotechnology is not expected to replace current chip-making processes for another decade. The urgency in moving to molecular electronics is propelled in part by recognition that conventional technologies, despite significant advances, will not be able to sustain indefinitely the chip industry dictum, known as Moore's Law, that projects a doubling of computing power roughly every two years.

The semiconductor industry has repeatedly found ways to make conventional transistors ever smaller, making it possible to place more transistors on a single chip for increased computing power and capacity. Currently the smallest of modern transistors are no more than a handful of molecules across; the industry believes it can continue to shrink conventional transistors for only the next decade.

But even those minuscule transistors are bigger than the new class of nanoelectronics, composed of components as small as individual molecules. Researchers are experimenting with a variety of new materials beyond silicon, including organic molecules and carbon nanotubes.