By Richard Gaughan, Small Times Contributing Editor
Mar. 20, 2007 — A growing emphasis on control of matter at the nanoscale has uncovered a wide range of opportunities for unprecedented generation and manipulation of matter and information. The tools of nanotechnology and nanoscience are being used to create coatings with unique thermal and wear resistance properties, to develop particles capable of identifying dysfunctional cells and delivering therapeutic agents within the body, and to implement quantum computing schemes that promise unprecedented performance. But these applications will not see widespread adoption until manufacturers are confident in both the technology and the logistical stability of the supply chain. That is, nanotechnology developers have to demonstrate to their customers not only that the solution is technically viable, but that it is, and will continue to be, available in quantities required for commercial applications.
How can this process be intelligently guided?
A consortium of European government agencies, corporations, universities, and trade associations, The Merging Optics and Nanotechnologies (MONA) project, is cooperating to develop a plan to guide the development of nanophotonics. Following the lead of the semiconductor industry, they are generating a “nanophotonics roadmap,” a document that will identify milestones and plot the path for market acceptance. The semiconductor industry has found such roadmaps useful in at least a couple ways: first, to institute a de facto cooperative effort among different companies, and second, to generate confidence within the customer base that products with certain capabilities will be generally available on schedule. The nanophotonics roadmap has the same goals.
Photo: The Merging Optics and Nanotechnologies (MONA) project
MONA is seeking involvement from additional parties, both within and outside Europe. As a first step, they have developed a Frame of Reference document that establishes a baseline description of the intersection between photonics and nanotechnology. Beginning with definitions of optics and nanotechnology, the document identifies challenges associated with developing the technology.
As part of the effort to include and solicit input from a variety of organizations, the MONA project sponsored a workshop on building a nanophotonics roadmap. About 80 attendees heard presentations from around the world on the current state of nanophotonics, then separated into working groups to further define the issues.
The group that discussed electronic-photonic convergence is confident that it will occur, if for no other reason than because the semiconductor electronics industry will need the help of photonic solutions to stay on track on their own roadmap, particularly in the area of both on-board and on-chip interconnects. Because the relevant metric is performance over cost, and silicon manufacturing offers the lowest cost, the working group felt that the foreseeable steps on the roadmap should focus on producing silicon nanophotonics. The first three applications are likely to be fiber-to-the-home integration, high performance server clusters, and multicore microprocessors.
Another working group discussed international collaboration, and concluded that necessary cross-border cooperation has already begun. Thomas Pearsall, General Secretary of the European Photonics Industry Consortium and facilitator of the discussion, feels that more emphasis on international cooperation is necessary. “In a little bit of time we’re going to have something that looks like a roadmap,” he said, “and I think we need to open it up to a critical discussion because the markets are international and the applications are international.”
A working group focused on commercialization considered such issues as technological milestones that need to be reached in order to trigger new applications. For example, high data rate highly secure communications with quantum crytptography will be triggered by a single quantum dot capable of emitting qubits, photons in a single well-defined quantum state. How long will it take for nanophotonics to move from first market to applications? The answer, of course, varies wildly depending upon the technology. For example, quantum dots are already in use for imaging applications, but there are many other applications with longer-term target dates for market acceptance.
The final working group considered the steps necessary to move nanophotonics from laboratory to high volume production. How do you generate products at a low enough cost to drive high volumes, which the group defined as one million to ten million devices per year? A necessary precursor will be the realization of a common library of design and process tools, most probably for CMOS devices. But there is a lack of identification of the current processes used by different players in the industry, a necessary step to defining needs for the industry. Government and cooperative industrial research organizations will probably be critical in helping to define a framework for precompetitive activities.
The discussions of the four working groups are representative of the types of issues to be addressed in the roadmap, issues about which the MONA project seeks additional input.