Saving Moore’s Law With High-k Materials

It has been more than 4 decades, but Moore’s Law is still relevant and the leading semi-conductor companies, along with their suppliers, are moving forward with breakthrough advancements in materials, processes and fabrication technologies. I was quite fascinated by some of these developments as I read the cover story in the July 9, 2007 issue of C&E News. There is tremendous excitement about “high-k” (high dielectric constant) materials for their potential use as transistor gate insulators in semi-conductor chips.

Early this year, Intel announced the successful commercial development of a 45-nm transistors using new high-k materials and metal gates. The current state-of-the art45nmCPUIntel process is the 65 nm process which Intel uses in the current generation of Core(TM) and Core2 microprocessors. Commercial production for the 45-nm transistors is on track for the second half of 2007 in Fab 32 at Ocotillo, Arizona (under construction) and Fab 28 in Israel (first half of 2008). IBM and Advanced Micro Devices have also announced similar plans for first quarter of 2008.

Silicon dioxide is currently used as the gate insulator material (k=4.2). Shrinking chip size forces the gate oxide layer to be thinner, which has now been reduced to below 2 nm in the current transistors. At this level, chip performance is compromised due to electron leakage across the thin gate insulator. According to Intel’s press release, transistor gate leakage associated with the ever-thinning gate dielectric made of SiO2 has been recognized by the industry as one of the most formidable technical challenges facing Moore’s Law in this decade.

Hafnium based high-k materials provide a solution to this problem by allowing a thicker layer of the gate insulator to be used in the transistor which solves the leakage problem and facilitates high performance. However, before this technology can be implemented, two associated problems need to be solved:

  • A suitable precursor which can be applied on silicon using an appropriate technique that can be integrated with the current process, and;
  • A metal-based gate electrode which can replace the currently used polysilicon material

Intel seems to have solved both of these problems, however the specific details of the materials and process recipe are trade secrets. Here is a sketch of their High-k + Metal Gate Transistor:


Excellent details are provided in a presentation by Mark Bohr, a Senior Fellow in Intel’s Logic Technology and Development Group.

Texas Instrument has provided a glimpse of this technology by disclosing that their high-k material in SoC processors for wireless products will be hafnium silicon oxynitride (HfSiON), which is formed by depositing hafnium silicon oxide and then reacting it with nitrogen plasma. Here is an excerpt from their press release, which highlights the success of this technology:

Through a modular addition to the typical CMOS gate stack process, HfSiON integration has been demonstrated offering mobility that is 90 percent of the silicon dioxide universal mobility curve, with effective oxide thicknesses (EOTs) below 1-nm. These results were accomplished without sacrificing reliability or adding significant cost to the CMOS process. Precise tuning of the film composition, tight controls, and high throughput also make HfSiON suitable for high volume manufacturing.

Hafnium oxide has a dielectric constant of about 30, however it is a challenging material to integrate into a silicon-based semiconductor. HfSiON seems to be a good compromise material although the dielectric constant is lower. We can expect to see continued development of these materials to optimize the balance of performance and large scale manufacturability.


European Bioplastics – A Promising Industry Association

I am quite impressed by the industry association European Bioplastics – an association of about 68 members ranging from bioplastics manufacturers, converters, end users, research groups and machinery suppliers. Registered in 2006 as a successor to the “International Biodegradable Polymers Association and Working Groups” (IBAW), itsEUBioplastics main mission is to support and promote market introduction of bioplastics. In particular, I liked their balanced approach reflected by the maxim “promote bioplastics rather than discriminate against conventional plastics”. Certainly, a key aspect of their strategy is to lobby for subsidies that can promote mass commercialization of bioplastics and lower risks for the much-needed investment of several billion euros in manufacturing capacities and infrastructure. To this effect, they have proposed several ideas on potential subsidies/developmental opportunities under Framework Conditions.

Although bioplastics account for only 1% of the total current plastics consumption in Europe, they are estimated to have the potential of nearly 4 million tons; i.e. about 10% of the current total market. This is huge – it translates to about 9 billion pounds, which nearly equals the estimated 9.7 billion pounds of low density polyethylene film for packaging applications (see my previous post) by 2010. Even if only 50% of this potential is eventually realized, it will still be about 10 times higher than what is projected for the US market for bioplastics by 2010. Therefore, the projected demand in Europe is much higher than anywhere else in the world.

There seem to be a few major trends driving this demand:

  • Environmentally sensitive consumer population willing to pay a little more for products made from renewable sources
  • Companies responding to the consumer sentiments by creating an image of sustainable development through such products
  • Government regulations such as the EU landfill directive and German packaging directive, plus the overall EU political strategies on renewable resources and recycle
  • Sharp rise in material and energy prices, not to mention the extreme volatility arising from crude oil prices

Contrast this to the near-term projected capacity for PLA and starch-based bioplastics. According to my post “Bioplastics Production Capacity Building Up” of May 12, the total projected production capacity of PLA and starch polymers is not even 5% of this ultimate demand of 4 million tons! Also, strangely enough, most of the PLA capacity is being established in the US, while a majority of the demand is projected in Europe (or even Japan). How come investment is not flowing into the EU for new capacity in bioplastics? Are these projections realistic?

I am hoping that the European Bioplastics will provide better research in future so we can gain a better understanding of this interesting market dynamics.

Strong Growth Projections for Bioplastic Film Packaging


The June 2007 issue of Plastics Engineering provides several interesting facts about the demand, usage and production of bioplastics in the cover story. Quoting a Freedonia Group report (Degradable Plastics, September 2006), it estimates that the demand for biodegradable and compostable plastics in the U.S. is expected to increase 20% per year through 2010. Led by polylactic acid (PLA) and starch-based bioplastics, the total volume by 2010 is estimated to be around 420 million pounds. Packaging industry presents the best opportunity for these materials in applications such as films, bottles and food service products.

Contrast that to the following growth projections for some of the major plastics film markets (see Freedonia Report Plastic Film, August 2006):

  • Low density polyethylene film used in produce and snack packaging, shrink wraps and trash bags: 2.8% per year growth to 9.7 billion lbs by 2010
  • Polypropylene film used in produce, grain mill and dairy products packaging: 3.4% per year to 1.5 billion lbs by 2010

Certainly, market growth rates for bioplastic film packaging are significantly higher than those for the conventional plastics, although the total market is still quite small. In order to compete with low density polyethylene and polypropylene, PLA and starch-based bioplastics will need to be cost-effective on both resin and film processing costs. Although, petroleum-based plastics have recently seen various price increases/volatility and supply interruptions, cost of corn-derived bioplastic such as PLA is still sky-high in comparison. According to one estimate, currently PLA is at an average of $1.3/lb, which is expected to fall below $1/lb within a year as more capacity becomes available. Still, there is considerable risk to PLA cost due to volatility in corn and energy prices. Starch-based bioplastics are likely to be less expensive; however they too are not immune to rising energy prices. Therefore, resin cost is likely to remain a key barrier for growth of these bioplastics.

Despite the cost challenge, several interesting examples of packaging applications are emerging. A few are listed below:

McKinsey Global Survey on Corporate Investing Decisions

A global surevey of 2500 executives from around the world provides an interesting perspective on how investment decisions are made in companies and Fundinghow these decisions often go wrong despite the best efforts of a lot of smart people. The good news is that most companies follow a rigorous review process with senior executives, including the CEOs, who pay close attention to all the right criteria such as past performance of the business units and value creation potential of the proposed projects. Still, it is quite shocking to note the following statistics:

  • Funding the wrong projects: Overall, those who responded, admitted that nearly 20% of their capital investments over the last 3 years were a mistake which should not have been approved. 23% of those who responded believed that more than 25% of their approved capital had gone to underperforming projects that should now be discontinued
  • Not funding the right projects: Corporate level executives, who responded, believed that it was a mistake not to approve 21% of the rejected investments over the last 3 years

It appears that roughly 1 in every 4 or 5 capital investment decision is often incorrect. Clearly, this causes a lower return on investment – and even moreWrongDecision importantly – results in lost opportunity on projects that could provide a better return. Surely, no one has the perfect crystal ball that could help them make the right decisions all the time. Still, just consider the following observations that seem to be responsible for this low investment efficiency, and it is hard not to feel that there is a lot of room for improvement:

  • 40% of the frontline managers do not know their company’s rate of return on recent investments
  • Overly optimistic estimates of timing and sales projections on new projects
  • Generally risk averse, most companies tend to view a similar level of risk in projects of varying sizes – clearly, either the risks are not well understood, or the risk assessments are not very rigorous
  • Projects are evaluated independent of each other. A portfolio-based approach is often missing, which results in a very poor understanding of the overall corporate risk
  • 36% of the respondents say that managers hide, restrict or misrepresent information when submitting projects for funding decisions
  • Funding decisions made as a result of intense lobbying and politicking.OfficePolitics

Although not explicitly outlined in the study, I think the following observations may also have a significant contribution to these results:

  • Frontline managers – and to some extent – even the unit-level managers, are usually reluctant to “kill” their projects even though the risks are high and probability of success is low. No one gets promoted by doing that!ScreamingGuy
  • Charisma of the project champion is often more important in getting funding than the detailed analysis of risks/return on the project
  • Only select projects are reviewed with senior executives while a lot of other projects continue to drain resources in the background
  • Internal rivalries within various business units often result in several overlapping projects that cause duplication of effort

Certainly, there are companies that deliver a much higher return on investment than the average. It would be interesting to learn more about the factors responsible for their success.

Many Players Emerging in the Bioplastics Arena

In a recent search, I came across a nice presentation from Keith Edwards of the BASF company, which was delivered at the May2007 SPI Film & Bag Federation meeting in Florida. The title of the presentation is also quite interesting – “Biodegradable and Renewable Materials: Do they exist? Are they here to stay?“. What caught my eye was the following Table which provides a pretty good list of different companies emerging in the bioplastics arena –


I was already aware of Natureworks, Metabolix, Novamont, Stanelco and BASF as I wrote about them in my post Bioplastics Production Capacity Building Up (May12, 2007). This table provides a much more complete list. Clearly, there are quite a few players in the game and the industry dynamics is beginning to get interesting.

London Celebrates 100 Years of Plastics


It has been 100 years since Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, and to celebrate this occasion, the Science Museum of London opened a special exhibition this week. Appropriately titled Plasticity – 100 years of making plastics, this exhibition has several interesting displays to showcase the evolution of plastics over the last century:

  • Bakelite coffin from wood-flour filled phenol-formaldehyde resin, 1938
  • Mold for a Tupperware(R) container, 1965
  • Model airplanes with different shapes, some appear to resemble a bird
  • Toyota iUnit concept car, 2005. It uses plant-based materials instead of oil-based plastics and metals. Tough kenaf plant fibres are held together by lignin, a natural polymer found in wood.
  • GRP Futuro House, 1968
  • PVC dress

I am sure there are many more exhibits, this is what I could gather from the web. I hope they are getting a good crowd!

Baekeland was Belgian by birth, but immigrated to USA after completing his doctorate. Most of his inventions happened here in America. So I wonder why this exhibition did not open in an American city.

Certainly, plastics have changed the way we live so much so that we now take it for granted. Here is a nice timeline of plastics that I found on the National Plastics Center & Museum’s website.

Carbon Nanotubes Gaining New Applications In Plastics

New applications of plastic composites based on multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWNT) are finally emerging according to the cover story in the May 2007 issue of Plastics Engineering. There are three key drivers for this trend:

  • New production capacity and lower cost of production (see my post of May 15, 2007)
  • Expiration of important patents held by Hyperion Catalysis (for example US patent 4,663,230 issued May 1987)
  • A growing number of business and technology partnerships

Two main areas of applications are sports equipment (lighter and stronger composite material) and automotive (static dissipation). Here are a few examples:

  • Hockey sticks from the Finnish company Montreal Sports use Baytubes(R) in an epoxy compound. These sticks are reported to be 60 – 70% more impact resistant than carbon fiber composite sticks. According to a page on the company’s website, “Nanotechnology has made it possible to produce a more flexible shaft, which helps the handling of the puck and improves the feel for the game. The most important benefits are the improved manageability and durability“.


  • Sailboat mast for the new Synergy 350 RL yacht based on the Nanosolve(R) epoxy-nanotube composite from Zyvex. According to Zyvex’s press release, it replaces a carbon-fiber reinforced fabric bonded together by epoxy.


  • Zyvex’s Nanosolve(R) materials are being used in a variety of sporting goods such as bicycles, baseball bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs. According to the Plastics Engineering story, the 2006 US Open winner, Geoff Ogilvy, uses clubs containing Nanosolve(R). See a complete list of Nanosolve(R) applications here.


  • Nano In branded nanocomposites from Nanoledge are used in skis called “Nano In Black” from another French company Axunn. These are reported to have better shock resistance and flexibility and are lighter than other brands. Several other applications are under development for Sports & Leisure, Automotive and Aviation sectors.


  • Applications in the Automotive and Electronic industries (Reference: paper from Hyperion Catalysis)
    • Fibrils from Hyperion Catalysis are used in the auto industry to dissipate electricity in fuel lines and connectors. Nylon 12 is typically used as the plastic material for these components, to which MWNT is added in low loading levels. Nylon 12 has good resistance to gasoline. Lately, the fuel lines are made of multiple co-extruded layers to comply with hydrocarbon emissions levels according to the Clean Air act.
    • Thermoplastic fenders of high-heat plastic for in-line electrostatic painting in conjunction with steel panels. High conductivity in the plastic part is achieved from these carbon nanotubes.
    • Front Unloading Unified Pods (FOUPS) for transporting silicon wafers from one station to the other are made from engineering plastics such as polycarbonate (PC), polyetherimide (PEI) and polyetheretherketone (PEEK) loaded with carbon nanotubes.


  • There is also a strong interest in the Aerospace market for nanocomposites of carbon nanotubes. Broadly speaking, carbon nanotubes are considered for use as reinforcements in ultra-lightweight parts. In my research, I came across a presentation from the advanced materials and processing group at NASA (see Enabling Technologies for Aerospace Missions – The Case for Nanotubes). The information in this package is rather futuristic; however it is quite clear that carbon nanotubes are considered to be among the front-runners in the list of available materials. They are expected to enable “radical design changes” by permitting a combination of properties not previously available and multi-functionality for increased efficiency. Among the challenges cited before this promise becomes a reality are inconsistent quality of supply, dispersion issues and limited characterization data for nanocomposites.





There is enough momentum in the industry, and enough pull in the market, for the technology of carbon nanotubes to eventually mature into a solid, reliable platform. It is only the beginning!