The DARPA Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI), initially announced in 2017, is a response to several technical and economic trends in the microelectronics sector. Among these trends, the rapid increase in the cost and complexity of advanced microelectronics design and manufacture is challenging a half-century of progress under Moore’s Law, prompting a need for alternative approaches to traditional transistor scaling. Meanwhile, non-market foreign forces are working to shift the electronics innovation engine overseas and cost-driven foundry consolidation has limited Department of Defense (DoD) access to leading-edge electronics, challenging U.S. economic and security advantages. Moreover, highly publicized challenges to the nation’s digital backbone are fostering a new appreciation for electronics security—a longtime defense concern.
ERI ensures far-reaching improvements in electronics performance well beyond the limits of traditional scaling. The programs make a significant investment to create a more specialized, secure, and automated electronics industry that serves the needs of both defense as well as the domestic commercial sectors. Building on the tradition of other successful government-industry partnerships, ERI aims to forge forward-looking collaborations among the commercial electronics community, defense industrial base, university researchers, and the DoD to address these challenges. There is significant historical precedent to suggest the viability of this approach, as each wave of modern electronics development has benefitted from the combination of defense-funded academic research and commercial sector investment. In the 1980s, when geometric silicon scaling started to make low-volume integrated circuit fabrication unaffordable, DARPA’s investment in the Metal Oxide Silicon Implementation Service (MOSIS) opened the door to rapid, low-cost chip manufacture, laying the foundation for the nation’s world-leading fabless design industry. In the 1990s, a combination of defense, academic, and commercial partners pioneered 193nm lithography, which became the industry critical fabrication process over the past two decades. A third wave of electronics innovation emerged as Dennard scaling ended in the 2000s, with the semiconductor industry adopting Fin Field Effect Transistors (FinFETs), a DARPA-funded innovation that drove low power computing and kicked off an era of 3D devices.
Given today’s cost, complexity, and security challenges, the nation now stands ready to collaboratively innovate the next wave of electronics progress. ERI’s investments emphasize:
- Increasing information processing density and efficiency
- Accelerating innovation in AI hardware to make decisions at the edge faster
- Overcoming the inherent throughput limits of 2D electronics
- Mitigating the skyrocketing costs of electronic design
- Overcoming security threats across the entire hardware lifecycle
- Revolutionizing communications (5G and beyond)
Leveraging 3D heterogeneous integration, the next wave should support continuing electronics progress despite challenges to traditional silicon scaling. This integration will enable innovators to both add new materials and devices to the silicon foundation and create specialized functions precisely designed to meet the diverse needs of the commercial and defense sectors. To manage the complexity of working in three dimensions, the next wave will also demand new architectures and design tools that address rising design costs, enable rapid system upgrades, and make security integration a primary design concern.
Working with ERI
As a community, ERI partners must ensure that the benefits from this investment differentially accrue to the U.S. commercial and defense base. To achieve this goal, ERI programs incorporate the joint efforts of dozens of academic, commercial, and defense industry researchers and transition partners. While results to date from these collaborations, as highlighted at the annual ERI Summits, point to several opportunities to promote U.S. microelectronics leadership, DARPA continuously seeks to launch new research efforts and to attract new partners.