This is the promise of a new technology pioneered by researchers of the University of Wisconsin's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).
This press release from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Self-Assembling Devices at the Nanoscale, says that "a new hybrid technique could lead to mass-produced chips with molecular-scale structure." Here are some details.
[These scientists] have demonstrated a technique that could one day allow electronic devices to assemble themselves automatically -- giving semiconductor manufacturers a way to mass-produce "nanochips" that have circuit elements only a few molecules across, roughly ten times smaller than the features in current-generation chips."
Until now, self-assembling devices, like most of the things in life, tend to adopt pleasant shapes. And this is not very useful for chips. So how did they tackle the problem?
[Team leader Paul] Nealey and others have spent the past five years or so combining photolithography and self-assembly into a hybrid technique known as "templated," or "directed" self-assembly. In the current work, the Wisconsin group began by using photolithographic techniques to chemically alter the surface of a standard silicon wafer.
However, because they employed extreme ultraviolet light, which has a much shorter wavelength than the light used in conventional lithography, and applied some clever optical manipulations as they projected the light, they were able to lay down an alternating pattern of straight, parallel, chemically activated stripes only 20 to 30 nanometers wide.
Here you can see a block copolymer that organizes on its own (left), and via directed self-assembly (right) (Image credit: Paul F. Nealey). A larger image is available on the NSF website.
So now, they get very small parallel lines. But how do you use these lines to design nanochips?
[MRSEC director] Juan de Pablo cautions, it's a long way from parallel lines of plastic to fully operational electronic devices. "All that we've done in this work," he says, "is to create the pattern, show that the polymer follows the pattern, and show that the final result is completely free of defects." Nonetheless, Nealey points out, this work is a proof of principle.
One key element is still missing. How do you design electronic circuits with these elements?
With our technique we can only make very simple shapes like lines and circles. On the other hand, if we can make these simple designs very inexpensively, then the question for the chip designers becomes, 'What can we do with this?'"
"That's a huge unknown," says Nealey. "But it will be a big research area in the future."
For additional insights, please read this CNET News.com article, Training molecules to draw chips.
Sources: NSF Press Release, July 23, 2003; Michael Kanellos, CNET News.com, July 23, 2003
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