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The Eldorado of Electronics

Each year, the components of integrated circuits get increasingly smaller. They have shrunk from 90 nm in 2004 to a mere 45 nm1 today, and the silicon wafer industry plans to get them down to 15—or even 10 nm. The reason for this is straightforward: the smaller the basic components of integrated circuits—transistors—the more of them can fit on a chip, resulting in more computing power.

eldorado electronic

© E. Perrin/CNRS Photothèque

Extreme vacuum device used for making nanostructures based on semi-conductors (quantum wells, wires, and boxes).

To push miniaturization even further, teams of scientists “are exploring all sorts of avenues, like transistors based on carbon nanotubes or silicon nanowires, or even on graphene, a crystal made up of carbon atoms,” explains Jean-Michel Lourtioz, director of the Institute for Fundamental Electronics.2 Nanoscience experts are trying to develop structures on atomic and molecular scales. “The ultimate approach to process information faster is to use just a single atom or a single molecule as a basic electronic building block,” says Henri Mariette, of the “Nanophysique et Semiconducteurs” group in Grenoble.3 But these so-called quantum electronic systems are still in their infancy.
Another very active field is spin electronics, or spintronics. Whereas traditional electronics only uses the electron's electric charge to send signals through a network of transistors, spintronics makes use of the electron's magnetic properties. This physical property is already being used to store information on hard disks in computers and servers.
Pushing this technology further, researchers hope to use the orientation of electron spin4 to memorize information in circuits that combine electronics and magnetism. More specifically, spintronics “has given rise to the discovery of other physical properties since the already well-known giant magnetoresistance effect,5” says Frédéric Van Dau, director of the CNRS/Thales Joint Physics Unit.6
“Some phenomena, like 'spin transfer,' even make it possible to foresee a type of memory that could work without having to apply magnetic fields to store information, unlike current devices. This technique should enhance and speed-up the wide-accessibility of Magnetic Random Access Memory (MRAM), which is both faster and does not require energy to keep the information stored.”
Beside quantum electronics and spintronics, a third type of electronic technology could well emerge from nanoscience: plastic electronics. Georges Hadziioannou from LCPO7 is working on semiconducting polymers, carbon-based materials that have properties similar to silicon. Applications include large flexible display screens or foldable photovoltaic cells. “Plastic electronics will not replace conventional electronics, but complement it,” adds Hadziioannou. Semiconducting polymers have the significant advantage of being flexible, which means, for example, that they could be placed inside clothing. And above all, they are easier and cheaper to produce than traditional integrated circuits.

Notes :

1. The size of the “grid,” one of the three electrodes that make up a transistor.
2. Institut d'électronique fondamentale (CNRS / Université Paris-XI).
3. Research group belonging to the Institut Néel (CNRS / Université Joseph Fourier) and to the CEA / INAC Grenoble.
4. Electrons can be thought of as small magnets, whose orientation is defined by spin.
5. Discovered by Albert Fert, Nobel laureate in physics.
6. CNRS / Thalès in association with Université Paris-XI.
7. Laboratoire de chimie des polymères organiques (CNRS / Université Bordeaux-I).

Contacts :

Henri Mariette,
Frédéric Nguyen Van Dau,
Georges Hadziioannou,
Jean-Michel Lourtioz,


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