IRG1-2: Technoscientific Re-emergence and Electronics Uncertainty

(Davic Brock, W. Patrick McCray)


This new project continues the theme from the oral histories of the intersection between the histories of microelectronics and nanotechnology.

Brock proposes to study the phenomenon of technoscientific re-emergence at research frontier of today’s nanoelectronics and microelectronics communities.The silicon electronics technologies that have predominated in digital and nanotechnologies for several decades have entered into an age of increased uncertainty. The highly regular pace of change in the ability to reduce the scale of silicon transistors, and to fit more of these transistors onto silicon microchips thereby lowering the cost of digital electronics, is now widely anticipated to end within a decade. Some believe that this regularity has already ended. In response, researchers across university, industrial, and government laboratory settings have initiated investigations into possible nano-scale electronic devices that may be able to supplant the silicon transistor, and microchips of them, and continue to increase the capabilities of electronic systems and lower their cost. Prominent among these diverse research programs are: Ferroelectric FETs (digital logic devices); Ferroelectric RAMs (digital memory devices); spin torque memory and logic devices based on magnetic tunnel junctions; and nanomagnetic logic.

These research programs fall into two categories: ferroelectrics (electrical polarization) and magnetics (magnetic polarization). In this, these research programs are, prima facie, examples of technoscientific re-emergence of research programs on novel electronic devices in the 1950s. At the same time that silicon electronics was first investigated, the United States boasted large research communities exploring the use of ferroelectrics and magnetics for new devices and microcircuits for digital logic and memory. These research programs and communities in ferroelectrics and magnetics for digital computing lasted well into the 1960s, after which they fell into relative dormancy and decline in the shadow of the unprecedented growth in the interest in, production of, and deployment of silicon electronics. Today, as the developmental dynamics of silicon electronics appear to be changing, and electronics as a whole is returning to an era of technological uncertainty, ferroelectrics and magnetics are gaining renewed attention for digital computing.

Recently, Brock has been conducting background research on these “More than Moore” research programs and their historical antecedents. Brock will focus efforts in 2014 and 2015 on the case of ferroelectric devices for computer logic and memory. These efforts centered on one predominant materiality – the use of Perovskites, materials with a particular crystal structure that exhibit ferroelectric behavior, in particular barium titanate.

The thesis that Brock will explore in the coming months concerns materials-centered and materials-defined communities within electronics research, and the phenomenon of re-emergence. In the next several months, Brock will track down some of the players in the ferroelectric materials community that he believes may exist from the 1950s to the present. He then plans to use IRG-1 support to conduct interviews with these informants in order to look at the connection of the history of nanotechnology to the history of microelectronics through the lens of materials-centered communities. Brock may work with a new UCSB graduate student to explore the role of Carver Mead and Lynn Conway in promoting Very-Large Scale Integration (VLSI). This is the methodology, developed from the late 1950s onward, pioneered by Mead and Conway, and supported heavily by DARPA of putting tens of thousands and then millions of transistors onto a single chip.