The minimum device feature size in state-­of­‐the­‐art electronics is currently less than 30 nm and is expected to scale down to ~10 nm over the coming decade. On this scale, dimensional constraints affect device behavior in unexpected ways because the device size is smaller than the characteristic length-scale of the fundamental excitations that control the electronic, optical, and thermal properties of materials. Consequently, such nanometer-­scale devices exhibit fundamentally different properties than their microscopic counterparts. These size effects present both challenges and opportunities for future DOD electronics technology.
Scanning electron microscope image of antimonide-based heterojunction bipolar transistors
Scanning electron microscope image of antimonide-based heterojunction bipolar transistors, for use in low-power electronics

Over the last half century, a revolution in electronics has produced a tremendous technological advantage for the U.S. military. Much of that advantage can be credited to Moore’s Law reductions in device sizes that have yielded exponential increases in system performance.

Today, with state-of-the-art microprocessors containing billions of transistors and feature sizes below 30 nm, the difficulties of further scaling are threatening to bring this epoch of dramatic advances to an end. However, at the same time, present-day electronics technology is characterized by an increasingly varied set of physical phenomena, materials, processes, and nanoscale geometries that are opening up many new challenges and opportunities for research.

The opportunities of this present era can be divided into efforts to sustain Moore’s Law and efforts to develop new capabilities and functionalities for electronic, optoelectronic, and energy applications. In both areas, the new work generally involves nanoscience or nanotechnology and can be said to aspire to Feynman’s vision of atomic-scale control of materials.

Applying advanced lithographic tools of the semiconductor industry and the self-assembly methods of chemistry and biology, scientists in the ESTD are investigating a wide range of nanometer-scale phenomena that will form the basis of future technologies including:

Nanoelectronics: Exploiting novel materials and quantum effects, e.g. massless electrons, for novel high-speed, low-power electronics.

Plasmonics: Using collective charge excitations to focus EM energy in volumes hundreds of times smaller than the photon wavelength for the purpose of improved molecular sensing and optoelectronic devices.

Energy Harvesting: Engineering the photon absorption and energy relaxation phenomena in nanomaterials or macromolecules to harvest electromagnetic energy for efficient conversion into electrical/chemical energy.

Quantum Information: Utilizing exotic quantum phenomena such as entanglement to parallel process large arrays of information and to communicate securely.

Sensing: Creating high surface-to-volume nanoscale materials to recognize and respond to chemical or biological species.