What follows is a list of 20 technologies EE Times editors think can bring big changes, and that we will be tracking during 2012.
Given the pace of technological change, limiting our list to 20 topics doesn’t really do the subject justice but in many ways our chosen topics embrace numerous others. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Ideas behind each technology are interconnected both conceptually – and sometimes physically – through engineers, consumers, companies, events and market trends.
The significance can sometimes be as simple as how a well-turned phrase catches the essence of a technology sector, such as the way system-on-chip (SoC) replaced application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) as a descriptor, a decade ago. For instance, is today’s "Internet of Things" the same or different from machine-to-machine communications? Whichever buzz phrase we choose, the key is whether the technology will enable products to succeed and markets to grow.
The pictures used with the topics are not necessarily new in 2011 but examples from the past that illustrate why we think these technologies will flourish in the future.
Speaking of flourishing, if we have learned one thing from this year of natural and economic disasters, it is that there are always areas within electronics and semiconductors that can grow rapidly even when the overall market growth is limited. And those hot areas are enabled by hot technologies like these.
1. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)
MEMSIC's no-moving-parts MEMS accelerometer uses a heater to raise the temperature of central column of air, while thermocouples around the edge indicate acceleration as a change in temperature
MEMS is really six or seven sub-domains, many of which have products with high growth numbers.
They include: environmental sensors such as pressure and humidity sensors and silicon microphones; inertial sensors including accelerometers and gyroscopes; inkjets and microfluidics; microactuators including micromirror devices and displays; RF MEMS; Micro-optoelectromechanical systems (MOEMS); bioelectronic probes and substrates.
MEMS ICs entering mass consumer markets
2. Wireless sensor networks
A wireless sensor system developed at the University of Michigan in 2010 used multiple stacked die with a solar cell energy source as the top layer.
Wireless sensor networks: the combination of sensor, microcontroller, energy source and wireless transceiver could yet transform some applications.
3. Internet of Things
NXP's vision of Internet of Things starts with light bulbs
When trillions of objects have IP addresses to help them serve billions of people it will change life on our planet forever.
4. Plastic electronics
Organic materials for electronics hold out the possibility of low-cost and biodegradable circuits. Unfortunately it also spells low performance at present – but possibilities are being exploited in RFID and NFC.
Thin Film, PARC tip printed 'CMOS' memory
Near field communications is becoming available in many mobile phones and 2012 could be the year when the cell phone as electronic wallet starts to arrive. Broader applications like building access, transport ticketing already make NFC a hot topic
Inside updates anti-counterfeit NFC chip
6. Printed electronics
Printed electronics is a a close match to plastic electronics, particularly with regard to low costs which can be achieved by reel-to-reel or ink-jet printing. Imagine intelligent food packaging that talks to your fridge which then orders up replacement goods, all without your knowing.
Printed electronics lights up beer bottle
Next: 7. Energy harvesting
There are many approaches to energy harvesting at the macro, micro and nano scales. But we are nearing the point where some microelectronics systems can be made sufficiently low power - requiring microamps rather than milliamps - that scavenging methods can produce enough power to enable them to be autonomous. But even where systems cannot be entirely self-powering do we not have responsibility not to "waste" energy?
We use inverted commas because energy is never lost but simply transformed from one form to another. However, the principle of minimizing battery use and increasing the time between replacement or recharging remains valid.
Energy Harvesting for Autonomous Systems
Artist's rendering of a graphene transistor showing gold electrodes (yellow), silicon dioxide (clear), silicon substrate (black) and graphene (red), with inse showing graphene lattice vacancy defects (blue)... (Source: University of Maryland)
Graphene is carbon in the form of a monolayer of atoms organized as a hexagonal sheet. It is said to be both the strongest and most conductive of materials. Not only is it being deployed in conductive inks but is also being considered for the creation of high electron mobility layers in beyond-CMOS silicon-based processes.
9. Next-generation non-volatile memory
The next-generation of non-volatile memory is likely to be vertical NAND flash, according to some experts. But if that should not prove economic then magnetic RAM (MRAM) and phase-change memory are still being researched by some and Resistive RAM (ReRAM or RRAM) is being researched by many. All have different capabilities and limitations and therefore theoretical sweet spots and potential applications with no clear winner as yet.
Sometimes the term memristor is used but really this term applies to any two-terminal variable resistance device with a memory effect. For example a ferroelectric polymer memory is also memristor-type memory.
Plenty of research, developments and arguments to follow in 2012.
HP discovers memristor mechanism
The microprocessor has long been one of the pinacles of achievement in the integrated circuit art. However, the processor is going through a bit of a schizophrenic mid-life crisis. It knows it must go from multicore to manycore but simply scaling up processing elements is not enough. Developments include programming languages and environments, such as OpenCL, and the generalization of the "big-little" paired processor approach of ARM.
The Intel-versus-ARM low-power battle has now replaced the Intel-versus-AMD performance battle that was waged during the previous 20 years. Expect more arrows to be fired in 2012.
11. Graphics and GPGPU
GPGPU provides acceleration of molecular modeling
Meanwhile the look and feel of a product, based on its graphics and general user interface performance is often more important to its success than the raw performance of its main microprocessor.
And it turns out the graphics core can do more than just render 2- and 3-D graphics. Look for the introduction of general-purpose graphics processor units (GPGPU), probably accompanied by the provision of libraries of routines that are guaranteed to run on vendor's GPUs. Also check out parallel processing languages devised for graphical rendering being used of GPGPU.
GPU technology key to exascale says Nvidia
We will contine to follow EUV and other forms of lithography including multi-beam e-beam and imprint lithography; a breakthrough beyond immersion optical lithography is necessary for miniaturization to continue.
ASML says EUV on track for 2013
13. Solar conversion
Copper-plated silicon solar cell developed at IMEC
There are many different semiconductor approaches to the conversion of solar energy including various types of silicon, compound and organic semiconductors and stacked arrangements of the same. Each approach has different costs, efficiencies and form factors associated with them And technical progress continues thereby changing the business prospects, while at the same time commercial subsidies come and go.
More bad news for solar: Oversupply havoc
14. White space radio
Neul offers an FCC-certifiable white-space network in a box
White space radio makes use of available spectrum around digital broadcasts for TV and radio. It is being proposed as a potential platform for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.
These days any fast wireless network might be billed as “4G” by overzealous marketers. But the fact is only the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard is true 4G. It promises disruptive impact.
LTE will drive a whole new generation of baseband chips, smartphones and embedded products interested in maximum data rates. It is already becoming a differentator for Qualcomm and Nvidia who will embed it into their 2012 applications processors. Chip and IP vendors are already competing over how to implement it in silicon. Handset makers are still in the early stages of their efforts.
It’s not likely any major new apps will emerge with LTE. However, carriers are expected to use the bandwidth to ease the congestion on their mobile data networks (from the fast rise of iPhones and Android phones). In the back end of carrier nets, LTE is a big step toward all IP networks. That means carriers are getting close to the day when everything from the handset to the core router and switch will all be pushing digital packets. Bye-bye analog circuit switches that hosted telephony for a century.
Report defines the future of LTE femtocells
16. 40/100 Gbit/second Ethernet
Now that 10G networking is finally making its way down to server motherboards, the next big thing in the wired Internet world is 40/100G Ethernet. Carriers and data centers have been clamoring for the technology to expand their core backbone networks.
So far it’s still expensive, in part because it still requires a lot of power and board space. But this technology is driving innovation in optical and signaling technologies to lower the costs and space requirements, and those innovations will ripple all across the industry over time.
Meanwhile the industry debates have been fever pitched about what’s the next big step. Engineers feel they are getting close to the limits of physics and what can reasonably be made commercial. Their view is a 400G standard could get hammered out over the next few years, but it will need the next turn of the crank in the underlying serializer/deserializer technology. Beyond that, no one knows what is feasible or when.
IEEE looks beyond 100G Ethernet
17. Mobile OSes with Android
What's the next feature the little green robot needs to enable beyond NFC? Augmented Reality? Gesture recognition interfaces? Support for HTML5, etc.
Intel should follow Wind River into Android
Samsung's 40-inch OLED TV
Active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) technology has been threatening to breakthrough into the mainstream of displays for a while. Can it work for large screen displays like 55-in TVs; smaller screens already have active matrix organic light-emitting diodes. When will AMOLED displays get into the iPad or iPhone? Or will it be outshone by MEMS-based displays or picoprojectors?
Apple invests in LCD supply
19. Smart grid technologies
Smart Grid technologies include smart power management and architecture system components.
The global power utilities are the next mega market moving from analog, standalone systems to digital networked technology. The opportunities are huge in everything from wireless components in smart meters to giant power electronics in transformers and substations and vast renewable solar and wind farms and the energy storage systems that will be built alongside them.
But these opportunities will be slow to materialize. Utilities are regulated and thus inherently slow moving. Policies at the level of the global Kyoto Treaty on down will influence the pace and direction of movement. And many market unknowns are yet ahead — like how much consumers really want to monitor the energy use of their fridge or dryer.
Forward looking utilities and vendors such as Cisco Systems have now put business units and plans in place. Over the last two years the first cut of some very basic framework standards have also been drafted. But plenty of technical work is also ahead to graft commercial IT technologies on to the power grid in ways that ensure safety and open the door to more automated operations of a grid that will depend less and less on conventional fuels.
Smart grid: Slow buildout begins
20. 3-D ICs
We refer to 3-D IC development and integration within established semiconductor process flows. The use of TSVs (through-silicon vias) and wafer bonding is starting to change the manufacturing landscape, throwing up the opportunity for a new set of winners and losers.
Building 3D-ICs: Tool Flow and Design Software