British scientists are playing a key role in the drive to make electronic gadgets smaller, smarter and even more powerful. Researchers from five universities are designing a new generation of ‘nano-electronic’ circuits (chips) that will power the computers and mobile phones of the future. The circuits may also make possible entirely new forms of electronic device that could benefit a range of sectors, including entertainment, communications and medicine.
The quest for new circuits has been prompted by the relentless advance of technology, which is now proving to be a real headache for the microelectronics industry. The microscopic transistors which are the cogs and wheels of all electronic devices are becoming even smaller and designers must now devise electronic circuits that are compatible with them.
Teams at the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Southampton and York are striving to create nanoscale circuits, using transistors that are 80,000 times smaller than a hair’s breadth. Because the circuits in today’s ipods and PCs will not work with nano-transistors, this research – which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – is vital to prevent the industry from grinding to a halt.
In the next decade, transistors will not only be ten times smaller – they will also behave very differently. Two of todays transistors, identical in shape and size, will behave in more or less the same way. That, however, will not be the case at nanoscale.
The next generation of transistors will, in the jargon of chip design, be ‘unmatched’– despite being apparently identical. They will also be extremely ‘noisy’, adding a strong random signal of their own (known as device noise) to whatever signal they are dealing with.
“The circuits we currently use cannot cope with this form of mismatch and randomness,” says Professor Alan Murray, of the University of Edinburgh. “They will require at least re-design - possibly even complete replacement - with circuits that have not yet been invented. We can’t wait for silicon technology to create viable, production-line nanoscale transistors. It will then be too late to start looking for ways to use them. We must start now.”
This new project will allow circuits to be designed that can cope with, or even make use of, the unavoidable bad behaviour of nanoscale transistors. It will use e-Science – which draws on shared data and massive computing power – to bring together computer simulations of transistors that do not yet exist and simulations of circuits that use them.
Principal investigator, Professor Asen Asenov, of the University of Glasgow, is looking forward to the challenge: “This project brings together leading semiconductor device, circuit and system experts from academia and industry and e-scientists with strong Grid expertise. Only by working in close collaboration, and adequately connected and resourced by e-Science and Grid technology, can we understand and tackle the design complexity of nano-CMOS electronics, securing a competitive advantage for the UK electronics industry.”
Professor Richard Sinnott, of the National e-Science Centre at the University of Glasgow, who will lead the e-Science development activity, is also eagerly anticipating the project: “Through close collaboration with our partners, we expect to revolutionise the way in which the disparate teams involved in electronics design process work. Our Grid efforts will be on four key areas: workflows, security, data management and resource management, each targeted to the real needs of the scientists we are to support.”