From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH): “New nanowire architectures boost computers’ processing power” 

From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH)

15.10.21
Sandy Evangelista

Valerio Piazza is creating new 3D architectures built from an inventive form of nanowire. His research aims to push the boundaries of miniaturization and pave the way to more powerful electronic devices. He has just won the 2020 Piaget Scientific Award, whose prize money will fund his work at EPFL for a year.

Piazza, a scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Semiconductor Materials, studies semiconductors on a nano scale. His focus is nanowires, or nanostructures made of semiconducting materials, and his goal is to move transistors beyond their saturation point. That’s because transistors are everywhere – in cars, traffic lights, and even coffee makers – but their miniaturization capacity is reaching a limit because existing designs are nearly saturated. “The main challenges we now face in processing power relate to overcoming the transistor saturation point, which we can do with nanowires and other kinds of nanostructures,” says Piazza 2020 Piaget Scientific Award.

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Valerio Piazza characterizes nanowires to optimize their electrical properties © 2021 EPFL Alain Herzog.

Much of the recent improvement in processing power stems from advancements in microfabrication methods. These methods are what have allowed engineers to develop compact, yet sophisticated electronic devices like smartphones and smartwatches. By reducing the size of transistors, engineers can fit more on a circuit, resulting in greater processing power for a given surface area. But that also means there’s a limit to just how small processers can go, based on the size of their transistors. At least that’s true for the current generation of processing technology. Piazza’s work aims to overcome that obstacle by developing new kinds of transistors based on nanowires for use in next-generation quantum computers.

Today’s computers are made up of electronic components and integrated circuits like processing chips. Each bit corresponds to an electrical charge that indicates whether current is running through a wire or not (i.e., “on” or “off”). On the other hand, quantum computers are not limited to just two states but can accommodate an infinite number of states. The fundamental element of quantum computing is the qubit, which is the smallest unit of memory. And it’s precisely at this sub-micron level that Piazza is conducting his research.

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Nanowires are made up of groups 3 and 5 of the atoms in the periodic table © 2021 EPFL Alain Herzog.

Piazza’s horizontal nanowires – they can be vertical, too – are made up of atoms from groups III and V of the periodic table: gallium, aluminum, indium, nitrogen, phosphorus and arsenic. “Each step of our development work comes with its own set of challenges. First we have to nanostructure the substrate and create the material – here the challenge is to improve the quality of our crystals. Then we’ll need to characterize our nanowires, with the goal of improving their electrical properties,” he says.

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A complex network of nanowires © 2021 EPFL Alain Herzog.

Processor transistors currently measure around 10 nm. Piazza’s (horizontal) nanowires are the same size but should offer better electrical performance, depending on crystal quality. His method involves etching nanoconductors on substrate surfaces in order to create different patterns, which will let him test various structures for enhancing performance. “Take a city’s highways as an example. If there’s just one road, you can get only from Point A to Point B. But if there are lots of exits and side streets, you can travel to different neighborhoods and go even farther,” says Piazza. In other words, he’s creating a network. Over the next few months he’ll focus on identifying factors that could improve the process.

The Piaget Scientific Award, sponsored by Piaget, is a prestigious award given out by EPFL every year to promote groundbreaking research in the broader field of miniaturization and microengineering. The award comes with prize money allowing the winner to conduct research at an EPFL lab for one year. It’s open to outstanding young PhD graduates who have the potential of becoming pioneering researchers in the field.

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The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne] (CH) is a research institute and university in Lausanne, Switzerland, that specializes in natural sciences and engineering. It is one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and it has three main missions: education, research and technology transfer.

The QS World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) 14th in the world across all fields in their 2020/2021 ranking, whereas Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) as the world’s 19th best school for Engineering and Technology in 2020.

EPFL(CH) is located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland; the sister institution in the German-speaking part of Switzerland is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zürich [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich)](CH) . Associated with several specialized research institutes, the two universities form the Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) which is directly dependent on the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. In connection with research and teaching activities, EPFL(CH) operates a nuclear reactor CROCUS; a Tokamak Fusion reactor; a Blue Gene/Q Supercomputer; and P3 bio-hazard facilities.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form the Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

The roots of modern-day EPFL(CH) can be traced back to the foundation of a private school under the name École spéciale de Lausanne in 1853 at the initiative of Lois Rivier, a graduate of the École Centrale Paris (FR) and John Gay the then professor and rector of the Académie de Lausanne. At its inception it had only 11 students and the offices was located at Rue du Valentin in Lausanne. In 1869, it became the technical department of the public Académie de Lausanne. When the Académie was reorganised and acquired the status of a university in 1890, the technical faculty changed its name to École d’ingénieurs de l’Université de Lausanne. In 1946, it was renamed the École polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (EPUL). In 1969, the EPUL was separated from the rest of the University of Lausanne and became a federal institute under its current name. EPFL(CH), like ETH Zürich(CH), is thus directly controlled by the Swiss federal government. In contrast, all other universities in Switzerland are controlled by their respective cantonal governments. Following the nomination of Patrick Aebischer as president in 2000, EPFL(CH) has started to develop into the field of life sciences. It absorbed the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) in 2008.

In 1946, there were 360 students. In 1969, EPFL(CH) had 1,400 students and 55 professors. In the past two decades the university has grown rapidly and as of 2012 roughly 14,000 people study or work on campus, about 9,300 of these being Bachelor, Master or PhD students. The environment at modern day EPFL(CH) is highly international with the school attracting students and researchers from all over the world. More than 125 countries are represented on the campus and the university has two official languages, French and English.

Organization

EPFL is organised into eight schools, themselves formed of institutes that group research units (laboratories or chairs) around common themes:

School of Basic Sciences (SB, Jan S. Hesthaven)

Institute of Mathematics (MATH, Victor Panaretos)
Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC, Emsley Lyndon)
Institute of Physics (IPHYS, Harald Brune)
European Centre of Atomic and Molecular Computations (CECAM, Ignacio Pagonabarraga Mora)
Bernoulli Center (CIB, Nicolas Monod)
Biomedical Imaging Research Center (CIBM, Rolf Gruetter)
Interdisciplinary Center for Electron Microscopy (CIME, Cécile Hébert)
Max Planck-EPFL Centre for Molecular Nanosciences and Technology (CMNT, Thomas Rizzo)
Swiss Plasma Center (SPC, Ambrogio Fasoli)
Laboratory of Astrophysics (LASTRO, Jean-Paul Kneib)

School of Engineering (STI, Ali Sayed)

Institute of Electrical Engineering (IEL, Giovanni De Micheli)
Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IGM, Thomas Gmür)
Institute of Materials (IMX, Michaud Véronique)
Institute of Microengineering (IMT, Olivier Martin)
Institute of Bioengineering (IBI, Matthias Lütolf)

School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC, Claudia R. Binder)

Institute of Architecture (IA, Luca Ortelli)
Civil Engineering Institute (IIC, Eugen Brühwiler)
Institute of Urban and Regional Sciences (INTER, Philippe Thalmann)
Environmental Engineering Institute (IIE, David Andrew Barry)

School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC, James Larus)

Algorithms & Theoretical Computer Science
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Computational Biology
Computer Architecture & Integrated Systems
Data Management & Information Retrieval
Graphics & Vision
Human-Computer Interaction
Information & Communication Theory
Networking
Programming Languages & Formal Methods
Security & Cryptography
Signal & Image Processing
Systems

School of Life Sciences (SV, Gisou van der Goot)

Bachelor-Master Teaching Section in Life Sciences and Technologies (SSV)
Brain Mind Institute (BMI, Carmen Sandi)
Institute of Bioengineering (IBI, Melody Swartz)
Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC, Douglas Hanahan)
Global Health Institute (GHI, Bruno Lemaitre)
Ten Technology Platforms & Core Facilities (PTECH)
Center for Phenogenomics (CPG)
NCCR Synaptic Bases of Mental Diseases (NCCR-SYNAPSY)

College of Management of Technology (CDM)

Swiss Finance Institute at EPFL (CDM-SFI, Damir Filipovic)
Section of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship (CDM-PMTE, Daniel Kuhn)
Institute of Technology and Public Policy (CDM-ITPP, Matthias Finger)
Institute of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship (CDM-MTEI, Ralf Seifert)
Section of Financial Engineering (CDM-IF, Julien Hugonnier)

College of Humanities (CDH, Thomas David)

Human and social sciences teaching program (CDH-SHS, Thomas David)

EPFL Middle East (EME, Dr. Franco Vigliotti)[62]

Section of Energy Management and Sustainability (MES, Prof. Maher Kayal)

In addition to the eight schools there are seven closely related institutions

Swiss Cancer Centre
Center for Biomedical Imaging (CIBM)
Centre for Advanced Modelling Science (CADMOS)
École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL)
Campus Biotech
Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-engineering
Swiss National Supercomputing Centre