New Semiconductor Technologies and Applications

Change is hardly something new within the semiconductor industry. In line with Gordon Moore’s 1965 observation (now known as Moore’s law), the number of transistors on an integrated circuit has doubled roughly every two years for more than fifty years. This constant technological development has facilitated the creation of a seemingly endless stream of new devices that have become central to daily life in the twenty-first century. While it may be easy to take change in the field of technology for granted, recent industry transformations tied to new semiconductor technologies and applications deserve recognition.

The semiconductor industry appears to be at or near an inflection point within its history. It is facing two discontinuities simultaneously. The industry is having to face the physical limits of existing semiconductor materials and the potential end of Moore’s law. At the same time, new applications are driving demand for even smaller, lighter, and more powerful semiconductors. While these changes could certainly threaten the industry’s steady rate of performance, the semiconductor industry is adapting to meet new challenges and opportunities.

As the 2020 edition of the International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS™) reveals, new semiconductor applications are now driving technological development and spurring problem-solving and innovation. Amid new demand, semiconductor companies are responding with a combination of More Moore, More than Moore, and Beyond CMOS. In what follows, we explore these developments in semiconductor technologies as well as new applications that are driving transformation within the industry.


Trends in the application of semiconductor technology

Semiconductors are a pervasive though often unrecognized feature of everyday life in the twenty-first century. They are an important part of consumer electronics such as smartphones and televisions. But they also exist in a range of other items including washing machines and refrigerators as well as automobiles and airplanes. Because of this, increasing demands for everything from safer travel to more efficient housekeeping and more engaging entertainment are impacting the semiconductor industry.

Where does new semiconductor technology fit in the new digital ecosystem?

Technological advancements and the integration of technology in the new digital ecosystem have had a major impact on the semiconductor industry. Demand for the integration of maximum functionalities on systems on a chip (SOCs) has grown, increasing the number of semiconductor intellectual property (IP) cores.

Furthermore, demands for high-performance memory systems have directly impacted semiconductor memory IP. The market demand for faster and more efficient memory solutions is driving the development of increasingly complex semiconductors that can facilitate intense memory operations. Overall, dependence on IP solution providers is growing, which drives huge investments in the market.

Historically, strong investment—in combination with global cooperation—has enabled the development of semiconductors in line with Moore’s law and has facilitated steady industry advancement. Continued investment is likely to continue driving growth within the industry. For the next five years, from 2020 to 2025, the compound annual growth rate of the semiconductor memory IP market is expected to exceed 12 percent.

How does new semiconductor technology differ from earlier technologies?

Transistors and integrated circuits have come a long way to get to where they are today. They have played a major role in the development of the computer industry. But even this industry has an older history than most realize.

English mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage created the first machine (his “Analytical Engine”) that featured many of the elements of modern computers in 1837. The first fully electronic computer (the electronic numerical integrator and computer, or ENIAC), powered by vacuum tubes, was introduced in 1946.

In the following year, 1947, a group of scientists at Bell Laboratories created the first transistor. Transistors were much smaller, much lighter, more durable, and more efficient than vacuum tubes. Their invention, followed by the development of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, paved the way for the revolution in personal computers and the rise of Silicon Valley.

While the personal computer industry was still small in the 1970s and 1980s, large computers—even with sophisticated cooling techniques—started pushing past the power limits of early transistor technology. This paved the way for the integration of complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology. CMOS uses complementary and symmetrical pairs of two different types of metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFET)—p-type and n-type. In comparison to earlier semiconductor technologies, CMOS technology came with the benefits of low power consumption and limited waste heat.

CMOS technology facilitated the development of new logic and memory products in the personal and commercial branches of the computer industry by the mid-1990s. Within a decade, however, power limits became an issue once again. This spurred the industry to adopt multicore processing to increase computational performance.

Innovation has continued to drive new semiconductor technology in the present. In order to achieve performance comparable with previous decades, the industry has started to depart from past architectures and devise new solutions to meet present and future problems.

Where is the future of the semiconductor industry headed?

In an effort to maintain its steady rate of performance, the semiconductor industry has embraced two key types of techniques in an effort to overcome existing semiconductor limits: More Moore (PDF, 2 MB) and More than Moore.

More Moore techniques attempt to further develop CMOS technologies to keep pace with scaling in accordance with Moore’s law. Demands for continued scaling and performance improvements have become especially important amid demand for new applications. High-performance computing, mobile computing, and autonomous sensing and computing are driving More Moore technologies. These technologies target more performance at constant power and cost.

In contrast to More Moore, More than Moore techniques, which are focused on improving the use of existing semiconductors, do not necessarily scale with Moore’s law. But new demands and applications are likewise driving these solutions. The integration of new nondigital functions into personal electronics systems, for example, are spurring More than Moore solutions. We can see examples of these solutions in miniature camera modules, motion sensing, biometric identification, and health monitoring systems. Future developments in nano- and biotechnology are also likely to continue spurring More than Moore technologies and products.

With these developments on the horizon, the future of the semiconductor industry is headed Beyond CMOS. Beyond CMOS refers to digital logic technologies that surpass current CMOS scaling limits. More Moore techniques have already extended current CMOS scaling limits past an order of magnitude in feature size and two orders of magnitude in speed. But Beyond CMOS technology is now progressing even further to achieve More than Moore.

A key goal of Beyond CMOS research and development is to replace commonly used static random-access memory and flash memory technologies with both new volatile and nonvolatile memory technologies. Researchers hope to meet the demand for electronically accessible memories that are high speed, high density, low power, and embeddable.

Currently, Beyond CMOS technology is used in a few niche applications. But most Beyond CMOS technology exists more in the realm of possibility than reality. It will likely be a while before this technology is integrated in devices that are available to the general public. What is important, however, is that researchers are working toward new and exciting capabilities to meet market demands.

Read more about new semiconductor technologies and applications in the IRDS™ Roadmap

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Advancements in semiconductor technologies and applications

The growth of fabless design houses and foundries has completely transformed the business of the semiconductor industry in the last fifteen years. With fabless manufacturing, specialized manufacturers produce semiconductor devices while system integrators maintain control over the business model and design of semiconductor chips.

This specialization allows system integrators to establish system requirements for new products at the start of a design cycle. Semiconductor manufacturers, in turn, meet demands that arise from these system requirements and make their way down the fabrication production chain.

In the past, the creation of a newer, faster integrated circuit triggered the design of new personal computers. But today the relationship between new devices and semiconductor tech is reversed: the design of new smartphones triggers the creation of new semiconductor devices.

These recent transformations are part of a broader shift within the industry. The industry is moving away from being a monoculture and toward more diversity and innovation. This promises to eliminate some of the unfortunate consequences of previous industry development. Namely, this shift reverses the architecture and industry consolidation that has limited industry participation and innovation and caused insecurity within the industry in the past.

What emerging technologies will improve the semiconductor industry?

The rapid development of smartphones along with computers and other electronics has forced a significant downscaling in the physical size of devices. This, in turn, has necessitated constant improvement in the semiconductor industry. As we noted above, semiconductor technology has been advancing for decades in line with Moore’s law. However, the industry also appears to be reaching the limits of miniaturization with existing technologies.

These limits have led to innovation with new materials to complement existing CMOS technology and achieve More Moore. Graphene and related two-dimensional (2-D) materials, for example, have great potential to overcome the limitations of silicon technology. As such, they offer hope for improvements in both device component function and performance in computational and noncomputational applications.

The integration of 2-D materials with silicon technology in computational systems can reduce the challenges of doping, contact resistance, and dielectrics/encapsulation. In the realm of noncomputational applications, these materials can be integrated into future cameras, low-power optical data communications, and gas sensors and biosensors.

Compound semiconductors, which combine two or more chemical elements, are also at the forefront of developing semiconductor technologies. Companies are interested in compound semiconductors made of chemicals such as gallium nitride or gallium arsenide, for example, because of how they operate in comparison to silicon.

Compound semiconductors can operate at higher frequencies and higher temperatures and also emit and detect light more efficiently. As such, they have great potential value for applications involving power electronics, radio-frequency communications such as Wi-Fi, and photonics such as solar cells.

What introduced some recent advancements in semiconductor technologies and applications?

As suggested above, recent advancements in semiconductor technologies have largely been demand driven. As the demand for new capabilities has grown, researchers and academics around the world have needed to turn to new Beyond CMOS technology.

Recent Beyond CMOS advancements have also been made possible, however, due to the alignment of outside technological advancement and innovation as well as specialization within the industry. Research on More Moore and More than Moore techniques has preceded much of the current need for newer, more advanced technology.

Some companies have been key players in driving new semiconductor technology forward. Intel, for example, has created a magnetoelectric spin-orbit logic device. This device has the potential to reduce voltage by five times and energy between ten and thirty times current levels. Research institutes such as UCLA’s California NanoSystem Institute have also played a role in preparing for a future with Beyond CMOS technology through their efforts to create more flexible and scalable electronic devices.

How have semiconductors contributed to advancements in electronics?

Recently, Beyond CMOS technology has sparked major advances in cryogenic electronics. These are electronics necessary for operations at temperatures below four degrees Kelvin. Cryogenic technology can be applied to improve sensors, signal and media processing, and digital and quantum computing.

In the near future, semiconductors also have the potential to play a significant role in advances in electronics in the medical field. New sensors to monitor brain activity, new systems to deliver drugs and monitor exercise activities, and new communication networks to send data between patients and doctors will depend on semiconductors.

Read more about new semiconductor technologies and applications in the IRDS™ Roadmap

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Projected developments in semiconductor technologies and applications

Although change has historically been a defining feature of the semiconductor industry, constant change can create challenges. Rapidly evolving technology and corresponding demand can leave industries scrambling.

As we have suggested above, the semiconductor industry has taken these challenges in stride through More Moore and More than Moore solutions. These developments have worked to reinvigorate the semiconductor market. Many more groups are entering the supply side of the market to meet demands for innovation. While large vertically integrated sellers previously dominated the semiconductor market, it is shifting to become much more of a buyer’s market. 

How is the semiconductor technology and applications industry doing right now?

Amid this broad transformation, the semiconductor industry has been forced to contend with a recent period of contraction. The year 2019 was not a favorable one for the industry. This stemmed in part from the US-China trade war, which threatened to disrupt existing semiconductor supply chain networks.

In response to the trade war, David French, the chairman of Silicon Power Technology, noted that China’s consumption of semiconductors is 40 to 50 percent of global supply and asserted: “That number is going to go up whether we sell to them or not.”

While French suggested that China could use its own technology to replace semiconductors purchased from the United States, other industry experts foretold industry struggles. Regardless of any actual outcome of the trade war, uncertainty and risk surrounding the trade war created difficulties for the semiconductor industry.

Nevertheless, the industry is poised for recovery and strong growth in 2020 and beyond. As technology continues to rapidly develop, the semiconductor industry plans to follow suit; total industry sales are projected to reach $66.8 billion USD by 2021.

How can new semiconductor technologies and applications improve further?

Technological innovation will be key to the recovery and growth of the semiconductor industry in the near future. We can see evidence of such innovation in the new chiplet approach to developing powerful processors quickly. This approach is part of the semiconductor industry’s plan to allow systems to continue improving in performance capability through More than Moore solutions to existing scaling limits.

Chiplets are small pieces of silicon that are designed to integrate with each other through package-level integration. Proponents of chiplets suggest that they will facilitate greater system specialization and higher yields. In an industry already transformed by fabless design, small, specialized chiplets designed to be combined with a general-purpose processor and other specialty chiplets might become the eventual end-product goal.

Currently, Intel is designing and connecting chiplets through the Embedded Multidie Interconnect Bridge (EMIB), which functions like a high-density bridge connecting two chiplets together. The company is using EMIB to create best-in-class products with significant improvements in form factor and size. Such improvements will likely prove critical to keeping up with demands for newer, smaller devices.

What’s on the horizon for new semiconductor technologies and applications?

Progress in artificial intelligence (AI) (discussed in more depth below) is creating new demand for semiconductors and thus new industry growth and innovation. However, the future also holds opportunities for new and exciting applications of semiconductor technology within existing industries.

The development of fifth-generation (5G) wireless cellular technology, for example, portends new applications for semiconductors within the communications industry. Rapidly developing demands for video game consoles and televisions with high-quality video streaming will also create more demand for semiconductors.

What emerging industries use semiconductors?

As market demands spur the creation of new semiconductor devices, new technologies and applications promise to have a major impact on the semiconductor industry. AI, for example, promises to drive major expansion of the semiconductor industry due to high demand.

Much of this demand will likely stem from the automotive market, which is expected to grow the fastest in the AI sector through 2022. Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, are equipped with sensors that allow them to “see” the world around them.

Self-driving cars are already on the roads today, and they are likely to play a disruptive role not only in personal transportation but also in many other industries as well. The coming years will witness a huge spike in demand for AI-tailored semiconductors as connectivity, sensing, and instant computing become increasingly central to everyday devices.

Semiconductors already play a prominent role in the technology that people use every day. And as technology continues to expand and transform at a rapid pace, particularly through the Internet of Things, semiconductors promise to follow. Although change is nothing new to this industry, upcoming technological developments offer the promise of something new and exciting for semiconductors going forward.

Interested in learning more about the current and future states of the semiconductor industry? Consider reading the International Roadmap for Devices and Systems (IRDS™). The IRDS™ is a set of predictions that examine the future of the electronics, semiconductor, and computer industries over a fifteen-year horizon. It encompasses a number of critical domains and technologies, from application needs down through devices and manufacturing. Join the IRDS™ Technical Community to download the roadmap and stay informed of our latest activities.

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