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saving semiconductors means acting now

From Always On

GregBlonder [Morgenthaler] | POSTED: 02.15.04 @21:09

Now is time for a few good researchers and entrepreneurs to come to the aid of the semiconductor industry. The ever-evolving system of battery, integrated circuit, and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) transistor, which for 20 years has lived in harmony with Moore's Law, is reaching its limit.

The doubling of transistor density every 18 months, which Gordon Moore predicted, is coming smack up against nearly impenetrable heat and cost barriers. Unless something radically new intervenes, the industry will begin a gradual descent into slow growth and diminished profitability.

The industry's ability to deliver ever more intelligent portable devices will be the first victim; such devices will start falling noticeably off the downward cost curve around 2010. But ultimately other forms of computing will sink into an ever-widening malaise. Given current trends, that could begin around 2014.

Such worries about an emerging problem ten years out represent no idle wringing of hands. That is because most conceivable solutions will take that long to develop. The time to start building an entrepreneurial business around the best of those solutions is now!

But where do we start?

Better batteries depend on more powerful chemical bonds, but we've effectively run out of atoms on the periodic table that could create them. Perhaps an improvement factor of two or three is possible. The integrated circuit offers potential for lots of short-term engineering fixes—new algorithms that reduce current leakage, new rules for running wires, and so on. But potential improvements are becoming increasingly incremental and will almost certainly exhaust themselves over the next decade.

The focal point of potential innovation, then, looks like it will have to be the transistor. There's no getting around it: we need a replacement for the CMOS.

The task is doable. Unlike batteries, transistors present no fundamental scientific barriers to dramatic improvement. The laws of physics permit us to work with far fewer electrons than the CMOS design currently demands. Fewer electrons, in turn, would allow us to crank down the power necessary to drive next-generation systems by a factor of hundreds. And less power would mean, of course, less heat and more design breathing room to create ever more intelligent and responsive portable devices.

Four CMOS replacement scenarios present themselves, in decreasing levels of desirability.

1. Field of dreams: Someone could come up with a CMOS design that, while radically different, fits within basic silicon design experience. That would be ideal, because it preserves the trillions of sunk dollars invested in semiconductor infrastructure. But because no new suitable design has appeared in over 20 years of trying, we can be reasonably confident that it won't.

2. The good: Researchers could solve the problem with new materials that lead to a better insulator, a better dielectric, or an absolutely uniform thin film, giving CMOS a new lease on life. In combination, such improvements might both solve the heat problem and require changes in just a hundred or so system processing steps. These improvements would offer the great advantage of leaving another thousand steps in place and preserving infrastructure. If no other alternatives emerge, a solution based on new materials might win solid industry support.

3. The bad: We could invent a whole new semiconductor transistor and replace the CMOS design entirely. Magnetic switching technology, adopted from magnetic memories, is sometimes mentioned as a viable alternative approach. Almost every step in the fab would require modification, and previously hallowed design rules and prejudices would need to be reset, but necessity may be the mother of invention.

4. The ugly: Finally, we could leave the cocoon of the silicon industry and head out into wholly new territory like organic molecular switching or nanotubes. These solutions would come genuinely out of left field and may have been ignored by today's major corporate players. Of course, it's also the least desirable alternative because we would be abandoning every last bit of infrastructure investment.

Of the alternatives, only number 1 offers the potential for fairly rapid turnaround. Alternatives 2 and 3 will almost certainly require ten years of development and commercialization before they become true mass products. It may already be too late to start on 4 and still expect a smooth handoff with no diminution of growth.

Such lead times raise inevitable questions about financial viability—especially given the standard venture capital time frame of five to seven years until exit. Yet the stakes are high enough that a truly innovative approach is likely to find serious, patient venture capital backing. The new company would have to be very clever about finding government research dollars, partnering, and watching its burn rate so that it could continuously fund development of its technology. Only in the fifth or sixth year might it break through with a couple applications where low power consumption is absolutely critical and customers are willing to pay a premium.

Challenging? You bet. But the right combination of technology, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist could make it happen. No conceivable undertaking would do more for the industry or the broader world economy.

Greg Blonder is a general partner with Morgenthaler Ventures.

Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.