At ITF2017 Belgium, Dr. Kinam Kim – President and General Manager of Samsung Electronics’ Semiconductor Business – received imec’s ‘Lifetime of Innovation Award’. By means of this award, imec recognizes Dr. Kim’s leadership and strategic vision, as well as the impact he has had on the global semiconductor industry. After all, the innovations that Dr. Kim has been pursuing over the past three decades are extensively being leveraged in a great number of applications – from computers and smartphones to the technology that is being used to accommodate the world’s largest data centers.
In this article, Dr. Kim shares with us his perspectives on the past, present and future technologies to which he has been – and will be – contributing. And he specifically calls out to the world with a very hopeful closing statement: “It is my personal belief that there is no technical limitation to what we can achieve. Maybe, someday, we might hit a wall – but I am sure we’ll always find ways to circumvent and overcome any issues. After all, researchers must always believe in the future!”
The past: unlocking the potential of 3D memory technology
Over the past three decades, Dr. Kim and his teams at Samsung have been instrumental in the development of several disruptions in the semiconductor space. When asked which have been the main innovations he has contributed to, Dr. Kim calls out two major achievements: the introduction of three-dimensional (3D) ‘recessed cell array’ transistors (which have become a standard in the memory industry), and the development of 3D NAND flash memory. Both are at the core of a wide range of devices and applications that we use on a daily basis – from computers and smartphones to digital cameras, video games, scientific instrumentation, industrial robotics and medical electronics.
“If we look back at the last ten to twenty years, Samsung Electronics’ Semiconductor Business has innovated in – and in some sense revolutionized – the domain of memory technology,” Dr. Kim kicks off. “Let’s take DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) as an example. Everyone in the industry was using planar transistors to build memory; with transistors being built up as a series of very thin layers of silicon semiconductor material – resembling a multi-layer sandwich.”
“But as new devices started to require ever more – and more densely built – memory, we moved to the 100nm optical regime and soon came to the conclusion that planar transistors were no longer able to meet the industry’s ever-increasing memory requirements. After all, at a regime of 100nm or less, planar transistors become very leaky – which limits their performance and potentially even causes complete circuit failure.”
“To overcome this issue, Samsung invented a three-dimensional structure – building upward and adding more layers to increase transistors’ density and performance. In research, we called this a ‘recessed cell array’ transistor. That has really been a massive change for the chip industry. Ever since we introduced this three-dimensional approach, it has become a standard: every company in the business has adopted it. Today, it has become a mainstream technology that is at the basis of countless devices that surround us,” he adds.
A second major achievement that Dr. Kim calls out, is the development of 3D NAND flash memory – which is typically used in removable USB storage devices (known as USB flash drives) as well as most memory card formats and solid-state drives available today.
“Indeed, 3D NAND flash memory has been another development to which we have largely contributed – with Samsung inventing the so-called ‘charge-trapping flash memory’ following ten years of continuous research. Thanks to the charge-trapping flash approach, we can continue to support the very aggressive scaling of NAND flash technology by storing information in charge traps in the nitride layer and applying it to vertical 3D structures. And again, following its introduction, everybody adopted Samsung’s approach,” Dr. Kim says.
Until today, the approach suggested by Samsung allows memory manufacturers to reduce manufacturing costs in five ways:
- Fewer process steps are required to form a charge storage node
- Smaller process geometries can be used (therefore reducing chip size and cost)
- Multiple bits can be stored on a single flash memory cell
- Improved reliability
- Higher yield since the charge trap is less susceptible to point defects in the tunnel oxide layer
The present: changing the lives of billions of people
The innovations pursued by Dr. Kim have not only been extremely valuable from a scientific and a business perspective; they have actually impacted the lives of billions of ordinary people – and will continue to do so for many years to come.
“Without these innovations, we would not be able to cater for today’s high-density, fast-storage memory requirements. Without them, there would be no such thing as artificial intelligence or the data centers that are used by companies such as Facebook, Amazon or Google to organize, process, store and disseminate large amounts of data. In other words: everybody gets exposed to the technologies we have been developing over the last three decades – across a whole spectrum of businesses and applications.”
The future: exploring new approaches to build memory – such as neuromorphic computing
One thing genuine innovators have in common, is that they are constantly on the look-out for new opportunities to explore. It is a universal truth that also reflects the mindset of Samsung’s Dr. Kim – who is already exploring ways to tackle the next big challenges in the semiconductor industry.
“When the development and expansion of memory technology is concerned, we already have a clear path forward,” Dr. Kim thinks. “The main question is how we can continue to develop processing (or computing) chips – knowing that current approaches, which make use of CPU and GPU resources, are not able to meet tomorrow’s requirements. So, somehow, we should invent new approaches. Neuromorphic computing, with CPUs getting replaced by neuromorphic chips that mimic the human brain, is one very promising route – and clearly one of imec’s focus areas.”
Believing in the future
Lastly, Dr. Kim calls out to the world with a special message of hope and trust: “It is my personal belief that there is no technical limitation to what we can achieve – even in terms of semiconductor scaling. Maybe, someday, we might hit a wall – but I am sure we’ll always find ways to circumvent and overcome any issues. After all, researchers must always believe in the future!”
Want to know more?
Imec’s Lifetime of Innovation Award was launched in 2015, in support of imec’s commitment to recognizing the prominent individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the industry. Previous recipients were Dr. Morris Chang in 2015 and Dr. Gordon Moore in 2016. Next year, ITF Belgium will take place on May 23rd and 24th – make sure to save those dates in your agenda already!
Dr. Kinam Kim joined Samsung Electronics in 1981, and led the development and advancement of various memory technologies such as DRAM and NAND flash, and logic technologies such as Application Processor and Communication Modem. As CEO of Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), he spearheaded the research and development of technologies that have significantly impacted the semiconductor industry, such as graphene, carbon nanotubes and quantum dots, advanced materials, 3D fusion technologies, batteries and printed electronics.
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