DARPA funds ‘electronics resurgence’ push
The initiative Envisages a new era of electronics in which advances in performance will come not just from continued component miniaturization but also by radically new microsystem materials, designs, and architectures.
The new funds will supplement the Agency’s FY 2018 R&D portfolio in electronics, photonics, and related systems to create a coordinated effort valued at more than $200 million, to be further supplemented by significant commercial sector investments.
The new initiative comes at a time when the microsystems technology community is facing an array of long-anticipated obstacles to its progress. The microelectronics revolution—which began after World War II with the invention of the transistor has arrived at an inflection point, beyond which innovators will no longer be able to rely solely on scaling.
“For nearly seventy years, the United States has enjoyed the economic and security advantages that have come from national leadership in electronics innovation,” says Bill Chappell, director of DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), which will lead the new effort. “If we want to remain out front, we need to foment an electronics revolution that does not depend on traditional methods of achieving progress. That’s the point of this new initiative – to embrace progress through circuit specialization and to wrangle the complexity of the next phase of advances, which will have broad implications on both commercial and national defense interests.”
.By focusing on the development of new materials for use in electronic devices, new architectures for integrating those devices into complex circuits, and software and hardware design innovations for transforming microsystem designs into reality far more efficiently than ever before, the initiative aims to ensure continued improvements in electronics performance even without the benefit of traditional scaling.
Over the coming months, DARPA’s MTO will engage with the microelectronics community through technology discussions, workshops, and other channels to forge a collaborative, cost-shared research agenda to usher microsystems into a new age of innovation.
The new research effort will complement DARPA’s recently created Joint University Microelectronics Program (JUMP), the largest University research effort in basic electronics, co-funded by DARPA and Semiconductor Research Corporation, an industry consortium.
The materials portion of the initiative will explore the use of unconventional circuit ingredients to substantially increase circuit performance without requiring smaller transistors. Although silicon is the most familiar microsystem material and compound semiconductors such as silicon germanium already play niche roles, these materials offer limited flexibility in function and reside in a single planar layer.
The DARPA initiative will show that the Periodic Table provides a vast reservoir of candidate materials for next-generation logic and memory components. Research will unfold with an eye on integrating different semiconductor materials on individual chips, “sticky logic” devices that combine processing and memory functions, and vertical rather than only planar integration of microsystem components.
The architecture portion of the initiative will examine circuit structures that are optimized to the specific tasks they perform. Graphics processing units, which underlie much of the ongoing progress in machine learning, have already demonstrated the performance improvement derived from specialized hardware architectures. The initiative will explore other opportunities, such as reconfigurable physical structures that adjust to the needs of the software they support.
The design portion of the initiative will focus on developing tools for rapidly designing and realizing specialized circuits. Unlike general-purpose circuitry, specialized electronics can be much faster and more energy efficient. Although DARPA has consistently invested in these application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for military use, ASICs can be costly and time-consuming to develop. New design tools and an open-source design paradigm could be transformative, enabling innovators to rapidly and cheaply create specialized circuits for a range of commercial applications.
“The proliferation and increasing sophistication of microelectronics—and the computing, communications, navigation, and countless other technologies that depend on those electronics—have been astounding, and have primarily happened with essentially the same silicon-based approach,” said Chappell. “Look at how much the world has changed as a result of mobile phone technology alone in just the past ten years. To keep this pace of progress moving forward even as we lose the benefit of conventional scaling, we need to break away from tradition and embrace the kinds of innovations that the new initiative is all about. We are looking forward to working with the commercial sector, the defense industrial base, academia, the national laboratories, and other hotbeds of innovation to initiate the next electronics revolution.”
The SIA welcomed the DRPA initiative. “The semiconductor industry has a long record of partnering with our government to advance early-stage research. This new, forward-looking program is yet another important example of this ongoing collaboration, and we are committed to working with the Administration and Congress to ensure its enactment,” says SIA CEO John Neuffer.