Silicon trough

It is being treated as if it’s past its sell-by date, say UK universities, but such is silicon’s value in our electronics future that we need to build a special facility to advance its research. Christopher Sell reports.

Silicon, and more specifically its use in semiconductors, has come a long way since Intel released the 1103 DRAM semiconductor memory chip in 1970. Advances in miniaturisation since then have led to the creation of smaller and more powerful electronic devices that are integral to everyday life.

Today’s mobile phones, with video and audio capture, have little resemblance to the brick-like models of 20 years ago. Similarly, an EI Systems E101 home PC with 256MB of RAM is as removed from the 32K Acorn Electron PC as possible. And behind all this progress lies silicon, the second most common element on Earth after oxygen.

But though silicon is ubiquitous and certain to remain the dominant material driving electronics developments for the next 20-30 years, its future is not so clear-cut. Silicon Futures, a network of the 12 leading UK universities in silicon research, is accusing the UK government of appearing to be more concerned with largely unproven applications in nanotechnology without realising that silicon is part of this burgeoning field. According to Silicon Futures, the Office of Science and Technology sees silicon as a mature technology that is past its sell-by date and does not require any further substantial investment.

The situation in the US is markedly different. President Bush announced in his recent State of the Union address that America will be investing $50bn (£28bn) in semiconductor-related R&D. Hardly surprising given that the global electronics market is valued in trillions of dollars, with the silicon component worth around $180bn (£103bn).

According to Silicon Futures, in the UK the electronics sector peaked at £55bn in 2000 and is now losing ground to competing European economies. Silicon research is taking place in over 20 leading UK universities but the number of researchers in the field has declined over the past 20 years due to the lack of government funding in the area. The EPSRC, which considers applications for government research funding, invested just £8.3m into electronics research in 2003, claimed Silicon Futures.

‘One of the challenges that the academic community and silicon industry now face in the UK is the need to forge an agreed strategic vision for silicon research and exploitation in the nanotechnology era,’ said Anthony O’Neill, a professor at the University of Newcastle’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering. ‘This will impact on many other fields, for instance in biological, medical, robotics and computing disciplines.’

Silicon Futures organised Silicon Day on 20 February, which saw over 100 academics and electronics industry representatives gather in

Savoy Place, London
to hear arguments in favour of a major injection of research investment. Such investment would in turn enable the UK to stand alongside the world leaders in promoting the integration of mixed technologies, including nanotechnologies, with silicon.

‘Don’t wait for government handouts, get the private sector to agree to pay to get results they are asking for — make the first spend from private money, then leverage for public money,’ said Prof Mike Kelly of Cambridge University. The fear of the universities is that without ongoing research into silicon opportunities would be lost or associated activities are likely to migrate overseas if the UK continues not to invest in research at similar levels to its competitors.

It is not just academics who fear the UK will be left behind and need to make changes. Industry leaders have drawn up an International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), in which miniaturisation and diversification were identified as principal directions for the global strategic agenda for silicon. This view has been endorsed by the European Nanoelectronics Initiative Advisory Council (ENIAC). Global partnerships are forming to meet these challenges, with opportunities for new science, engineering and commercial enterprise. Growth can be illustrated most keenly by the explosion in Bluetooth technology, explained Ivor Evans of Cambridge Silicon Radio, who said that worldwide the semiconductor industry is worth $230bn (£130bn) and will increase to $300bn (£170bn) by 2010. This has led to significant growth for CSR, with a Bluetooth attach rate of 14 per cent in 2004 that is expected to rise to 32-35 per cent by the end of 2006.

So where is the UK in all this? Paul Jarvie of the National Microelectronics Institute — a not-for-profit trade association that assists firms to prosper in its industry — believes Europe must establish an R&D infrastructure vision, where they can leverage partnerships between large industries, SMEs and academic houses. However, he claims that the NMI feels the UK is not as connected to Europe as it would like.

‘Europe needs to see the UK as a player,’ he said. ‘It cannot be left to civil servants. It will provide opportunities for pure research but we need to develop a common vision based on capability and exploitable opportunity, and an established European network is something the UK clearly should be involved in.’

People who attended Silicon Day were united in their opinion of establishing a link with Europe. O’Neill is clear about what the UK should do. ‘For success the UK must lead, not follow. It needs to be involved with ENIAC and form strategic alliances,’ he said.

He added that the current microelectronics landscape is vast so any UK strategy must focus on unique strengths that are available and then set an agenda that will identify these areas and make economic sense.

All these ideas have culminated in the concept of a national facility — as set out in the 2005 Research Council’s UK Large Facilities Roadmap — which will first and foremost be established to prove new concepts, merging silicon with micro and nanotechnologies. It will not be for CMOS manufacturing, but for the proof of concept of new applications of nanoelectronics merged with other nanotechnologies.

The proposed facility will give the UK the necessary infrastructure to lead the world in the many interdisciplinary fields that intersect nanotechnology with silicon-based nanoelectronics. Silicon Futures stresses that the investment is needed as soon as possible, and before 2010. The facility would be a mini-fab, based around a set of cluster tools, offering a stable leading-edge CMOS platform technology, enabling highly flexible single-wafer processing with scope for the integration of other nanotechnologies and existing research infrastructure around the UK.

Lithography at nanometre dimensions would be undertaken by electron beam, reducing the cost of this expensive component of semiconductor processing, but suitable for proof of concept and low-volume processing. Users of the facility would comprise the broad community of scientists and engineers in the UK who are seeking to harness nanotechnology to meet the challenges in fields such as communications, medicine, transport and information processing.

‘The key message is that global partnerships mean these things will happen whether we like it or not. So it would be better to develop and exploit unique strengths, establish a national facility and the UK can lead and not follow,’ concluded O’Neill.