Nanotechnology and Electronics

The competition for nanotechnology applications in electronic circuitry is meeting manufacturing volume challenges, reliability, and cost.  Until the manufacturing volume can be demonstrated, the reliability can not be evaluated.  Cost will be a function of developing means of high-volume manufacturing.  This is still some time in the future.  If the challenges are engineering challenges, the solutions will be found with enough industry effort.  There are three areas where nanotechnology appears to be providing some indication of a promising future: flexible nanomaterial based circuitry, sensors, and graphene-based circuitry.

Flexible Nanowires:

Researchers from the University of Glasgow [Ref. #1] have developed a process that can print nanowires using silicon and zinc-oxide materials with average diameters of 115nm and spacing of 165nm.  This permits the production of flexible electronic circuits.  An advantage is that the circuitry can be produced over a large area.  The potential for this approach is to provide the underlying circuitry for form fitting and flexible circuits.  One example that immediately comes to mind is the creation of custom circuits to work on prosthetics.


One area of sensor development if the application of carbon nanotubes imbedded within fibers.  Nerve-like conductive composites are produced using an elector-deposition of functionalized carbon nanotubes [Ref. #2].  Their work has been embedded within a number of traditional fabrics.  The coatings range from n205nm to 750nm thick.  The initial work was employed to measure the pressure on the various parts of subject feet.  Their claim is that the application can produce superior results in a variety of medical situations where the force pattern is important in developing the issue or injury.

Another sensor application is the development of an electronic “nose”.  There has been numerous research papers in this topic.  One example [Fig. #3] describes their efforts to enable a device employing nanosensors to analyze various chemicals that are exposed to the device.  The device examines molecules in vapor.  The device is small (handheld) and is accurate to with 20% of a gas chromatograph, which costs significantly more and takes longer.  Applications that required expensive and/or time consuming measurements can be replaced by portable and inexpensive devices that provide rapid analysis.

Graphene based Circuitry:

One of the issues of mass production is to be able to achieve the volumes at an efficient cost, which implies that the circuitry must be produced cheaply and rapidly.  One of the issues is that any approach must compete with semiconductor5 manufacturing.  Through the use of lithography for patterning, billions of transistors can be produced very rapidly.  There has been a change in the previously continual progress of reducing cost as the dimensions of the devices are reduced.  This recently changed in that the challenges in making the nearly single digit nanometer devices has become more expensive.  The consequence of this is that the cost per transistor has stopped shrinking.

The use of 2D materials has been promising, but high-volume production is not been proven.  Work at imec [Re. #4] has focused on building 2-D devices and layering them to produce the desired properties.  The issues with the process are that it is a multi-step involving a number of different materials.  The projection is that material availability in volume is 10 years or more in the future.  The hidden issue is that defect-free 2-D materials are not producible in dimensions that are required for volume production.


We are seeing the development of potential materials that can be employed to solve issues are not currently possible.  We are still in the materials development phase.  It will be a while before there is truly volume production of nanoscale electronic systems.


About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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