Professor Markys Cain, National Physical Laboratory
Due to a decade of stagnation in semiconductor transistor performance, computational processing power has failed to increase by more than a few percent since 2003. Now a new European research project looks to speed up the commercialization of revolutionary electronics that could finally provide a route to faster, more reliable and greener computing.
The aim of the Nanostrain project is to advance commercial opportunities arising from controlled strain in nano-scale piezoelectric materials (materials that change their shape, or ‘strain’ in response to applied voltages). Transistors made out of these materials could operate at one-tenth of the voltage of today’s CMOS equivalent, consuming 100 times less power as they do so.
Efforts to develop silicon based computer components at higher speeds have reached a ceiling. Of course there are other solutions out there, including carbon nanotubes and graphene. However, because Piezoelectric materials have been known about for much longer (around 100 years), they benefit from a far greater foundation of scientific understanding which commercial research and development teams are starting to taking advantage of.
Progress in these areas is dependent on the development of new and more accurate measurements and best practice to better understand how these materials work and how they can be exploited. To address this ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ Nanostrain brings together European national laboratories, world class research instrument facilities and commercial companies, to provide highly accurate measurements of how exactly Piezoelectric materials strain at the nano-scale, and subsequently drive the commercialization of next generation electronic devices.
Using a range of novel techniques, the Nanostrain project will develop new tools for the characterization of nano-strain under industrially relevant conditions of high stress, and electric fields. If the Nanostrain project is successful and helps bring forward the new technologies currently in development, the average computer or laptop user could enjoy a wealth of benefits that accompany greater processing power. These include faster internet access, reduced device weight, longer battery life and lower energy consumption.
As well as these performance improvements, for large industry users there is also the potential to make significant inroads into the carbon footprint of data farms which currently account for 1% of total global energy usage. With the energy efficiency potential on offer in the coming decade from these nano-straining piezoelectric materials, the opportunity is there to cut this energy consumption by a factor of five or even more.
Our European-wide approach ensures greater collaboration, building on existing infrastructure such as the Piezo Institute and involving experts distributed throughout Europe- something that could not be achieved by a commercial organization alone.
This work is funded through the European Metrology Research Program (EMRP) Project IND54 Nanostrain. Participating countries within EURAMET and the European Union jointly fund the EMRP.