Dr. Tuomo Suntola has received the technology award with the world’s highest prize money for atomic layer deposition (ALD) – a method for producing high-quality, thin layers for microelectronics which he developed. Congratulations from electronica!
The prestigious Millennium Technology Prize is awarded every two years. This year, there were 72 innovations submitted by 105 people from all over the world to choose from. The Finnish physicist Dr. Tuomo Suntola ultimately won the prize. Today, the Finnish President presented him with the prize and a check for €1 million.
Suntola developed the technology back in the 1970s in order to produce thin, electroluminescent layers for flat displays (Thin Film Electroluminescent – TFEL). At the time, no one imagined layer thicknesses in the order of nanometers. Only later, as a result of technological developments, many researchers around the world began discovering the optimum method for producing nanostructures from the middle of the 1990s.
At the moment, the global market for systems and chemicals for producing ALD films is estimated to be worth around $2 billion, while the market value of the consumer electronics based on the procedure is believed to be at least $500 billion.
Layers for microelectronics
The atomic layer deposition (ALD) procedure developed by Suntola makes it possible to produce nanostructures which, among other things, have led to huge increases in the performance of computer processors. With the procedure, extremely thin, defect-free and highly homogeneous layers can be deposited and used for example as a dielectric in transistors, capacitors and non-volatile memories. An important feature here are the high dielectric constants, allowing relatively thick insulator (dielectric) layers in a transistor. As a result, the leakage currents caused by quantum mechanical effects can be drastically reduced, thus allowing the overall structural sizes of components to be reduced.
The ALD procedure is essentially a modified form of chemical vapor deposition (CVD). The difference is, however, that the process is divided up into a number of separate stages.
ALD – a multipurpose procedure
ALD plays a crucial role in numerous high-tech applications. Components with the extremely thin insulating or conductive layers can be found in virtually all computers and smartphones nowadays. Although their power is increasing all the time, IT devices are becoming smaller and cheaper. Suntola’s innovation is therefore helping to keep the famous Moore’s law alive – albeit in a modified form. In 1965, Moore predicted that the number of components in an integrated circuit would double approximately every two years and that its price would fall constantly. Over the decades, the law evolved into the “transistors per area unit” concept. Since 2016, the Intel roadmap has not followed Moore’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” either.
However, ALD films are a welcome addition not only in IT. Promising results have been achieved with medical instruments and coatings for implants too. Start-ups are even attempting to use the technology for the controlled release of active ingredients in the human body in a manner which is commercially viable. The technology also has the potential to optimize the performance of solar collectors, LED lamps and lithium batteries for electric cars. The films are already used in optical applications and on watches and silver jewelry to prevent corrosion.
The Millennium Technology Prize
The Millennium Technology Prize which is the result of an initiative of the Finnish government was first awarded to the British physicist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, in 2004. It rewards groundbreaking technological innovations which improve people’s quality of life and encourage lasting development.