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This Technology Map defines nanoelectronics as the manipulation of matter at a scale of less than 100 nanometers to create structures with useful electronic properties (1 nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). Decreasing dimensions in electronic devices has a long history of delivering cost and performance improvements. As the scale decreases to the nanoscale, new and often-enhanced material properties arise because of quantum-size effects, interface phenomena, and very high surface-to-volume ratios. Nanoscale materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene have properties that do not exist at the macroscale. However, the top-down manufacturing processes that currently dominate the semiconductor industry are only one option for producing nanoscale devices and, in time, are likely to become too expensive for many applications. Nanoparticle formation, nanoimprinting, wet processing, and molecular self-assembly are some of the bottom-up processes that have the potential to become increasingly important in the electronics industry.

Today, many conventional integrated circuits involve sub-100-nanometer feature sizes, but commercialization of devices with novel nanoscale properties came well before. One-dimensional nanostructures—in the form of quantum-well lasers—first became commercial in the 1980s, and such devices are now widespread in DVD and Blu-ray players and telecommunications equipment. During the 1990s, ultrasensitive magnetic GMR heads relied on electron spin originally for hard-diskdrive storage, and today new forms of nanoelectronic solid-state memory are vying to replace flash memory and DRAM. Two important attributes of nanoscale devices are the benefits that come from a high surface-to-volume ratio (with implications for improved ultracapacitors, fuel-cell catalysts, and battery electrodes) and the ability to disperse nanoparticles in solution for low-cost printed electronics. Wet processing of electronic and optical inks can produce low-cost printed conductors, transparent electrodes, antennas, transistors, and solar cells, to name but a few.

Nanoelectronics will have an impact on almost every industry, because electronics itself is ubiquitous. New nanodevices are having a direct impact across a wide number of industries, including energy, lighting, and biomedicine. New printed solar cells could alter radically the economics of this form of renewable energy; enhanced nanostructured batteries are important for hybrid electric vehicles; new nanocrystals could tailor the output of white LEDs, dramatically reducing the consumption of electricity in lighting. Several wild cards exist in the longer term: Futurists envision a world in which nanotechnology creates minute machines that, working in parallel, create micro and macro devices. Quantum-computing is making enormous progress but remains in its infancy and has the potential to enable processing and memory-building blocks beyond the limits imaginable today. However, consideration of the near-term potential of nanoelectronics requires a realistic assessment of this technology, given its considerable immaturity, the need for practical production techniques, and the existence of many incumbent and competing technologies.