3M creates high-density material for PCBs

3M has announced a new high-density version of its Embedded Capacitance Material (ECM), an innovation it says will have wide application in miniaturized computing.

Embedded Capacitance Material (or ECM) is constructed from a thin layer of epoxy filled with ceramic and layered on both sides with copper foil. It can be embedded directly onto printed circuit boards (PCBs), reducing the number of surface mount capacitors needed, leaving more room on the boards and reducing noise that causes electromagnetic interference.

The company says it has increased the capacitance in its ECM to between 20 to 40 nF from 10 nF in previous versions.  This means computer and electronic component manufacturers will be able to “include more functionality in a device of the same size, or within practical limits, shrink the device some more,” says Alexander Barr, senior product develop specialist at 3M.
The new ECM would theoretically be able to reduce the hardware required for something like a mobile device by several orders of magnitude, adds Joel Pfeiffer, a technical support engineering specialist at the manufacturer. “It works that way, mostly. If you for some reason had a need for, say, 100 nF of embedded capacitance previously, that would have taken 10 square inches and now you could do that with much less.”
According to a 2010 study by AVX Corp., a U.S.-headquartered global manufacturer and supplier of electronic components, up to 70 per cent of the PCBs on today’s electronic devices are covered with passive components (which consume energy that could be used to power the device). ECM is designed to replace these, thus making PCBs more functional per square inch.
However, Prof. Todd Hubing, who works in the electrical and computer department at South Carolina’s Clemson University, says while ECM could be the future of computers and electronics, its cost remains too high to see widespread adoption in those industries.
“If it cost the same as just adding surface mount capacitors I think everybody, well not everybody, but most electronics would be using embedded capacitance materials because they really do reduce the noise,” he says. “Electrically, they’re just a better option than these lumped components. But the problem has always been the cost of putting this material in versus the cost of just adding some more surface mount components.”
ECM suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem with manufacturers, he says. “There’s nothing inherently expensive about it. I think the reason the costs are so high is because the volumes are so low. It’s one of those things, I think, that if everybody started using it, it would be cheap, and if it were cheap everybody would start using it.”
So far, 3M [NYSE: MMM] has not released the new ECM to the market, but has supplied it to several OEMs in the qualification process.
Hubing says ECM is just one emerging technology with the potential to make computers smaller and more powerful. In September of last year, IBM and 3M announced a partnership to develop special adhesives that would stack semiconductors into towers of as many as 100 chips, creating a new kind of microprocessor.  These stacks could be used in everything from servers to smartphones.
“Certainly we’re doing a lot more stuff on-chip right now,” says Hubing. “The stacked silicon inside chips is catching on [and] will eventually be widely used, I think. And that’s allowed us to put a lot more computing power or a lot more function inside a single chip.”

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