If you study the development of information technologies since the dawn of the electronic computing age in the 1940s, you see that one advance followed another in a relatively steady stream. Underlying much of that flow was the transistor, a tiny digital switch, which is embodied in semiconductors and packaged in large quantities on integrated circuits. The ability of scientists and engineers to pack ever more transistors in ever smaller spaces means we can have as much processing power on today’s smart phone as was on a mainframe computer in the 1960s.
That steady flow of progress is threatened, however. Chip designers are running into limitations imposed by physics as they endeavor to pack more transistors in tiny spaces. In recent years, they have kept the march of miniaturization advancing using new materials and novel designs. But the message is clear: The transistor’s days are numbered. A new switch must be discovered.
Here’s where the new Nanotechnology Center at IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich comes into play. The center, which was formally opened today, is a joint venture of IBM and ETH Zurich, a premier European science and technology university. It was only through pooling resources that IBM and ETH Zurich could afford to build and operate this state-of-the-art facility; and joint research projects promise to combine the skills of industry and academic researchers in ways that neither party could achieve on their own. One of the key goals of the people behind the center: Inventing the next switch.
The announcement of the new center is being made today in Switzerland at the first in a series of IBM Research colloquia. Throughout IBM’s centennial year, the company will convene thought leaders from business, government and academia at its global labs to discuss technologies of the future and their potential impact on business and society. The program for IBM Research – Zurich Colloquia is Nanotechnology and the Future of Computing. The dialogue will include five Nobel laureates, the US Ambassador to Switzerland, the Minister of Economics for Lithuania and members of the Swiss Federal Council. To view a livestream of the event, click on this link.
The idea for the nano center was born nearly three years ago, the outgrowth of a formal ongoing collaboration between IBM and ETH Zurich. The $90 million facility is located on the campus of IBM Research. The site is especially apt: It was the birthplace of nanotechnology. There, IBM scientists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope, for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. (IBM now does advanced research in nanotechnology at facilities all around the world.)
The managers of the Zurich nano center plan on focusing on a variety of areas of inquiry related to the discovery of the next switch, including research in atomic-scale and molecular switching, self-assembly, spintronics, and new materials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes. “We’re on the cusp of a change,” says Paul Seidler, department manager for science and technology at the IBM lab and coordinator of the Nanotechnology Center. “What is waiting in the wings, nobody knows for sure. That’s why we call it a quest.”
What’s so special about the nano center? The cleanroom, at 950 square meters, is spacious and is equipped with $30 million worth of the latest scientific equipment and software tools. The building was designed and constructed to provide a low-disturbance environment for experiments that are sensitive to sounds, vibrations, electro-magnetic forces, temperature and humidity. For one thing, the clean room is built on a massive slab of concrete which is suspended on a cushion of air. Because of the wide variety of safeguards, “We hope we can operate our tools at peak performance, or maybe beyond it,” says Emanual Loertscher, an IBM researcher who took the lead in creating the low-disturbance environment.
The research at the nano center will complement work that IBM is doing at Albany Nanotech, in New York, where IBM has formed a partnership with the State University of New York at Albany and more than 200 public and private entities.
Seidler is optimistic about the prospects of IBM achieving key breakthroughs in “next switch” technology because of its broad portfolio of investments. “We’re extraordinarily well positioned,” he says. “We have to not lose our nerve. We must not be distracted by other guys going in different directions.”
Ever since IBM was formed 100 years ago, it has repeatedly made big bets about the future of computing. And, more often than not, those bets have paid off. If the company discovers what turns out to be the next switch, the payoff will not only come for IBM but for all of society. That’s heady stuff for scientists like Seidler. “You want to have impact. You want to change the course of technology. That’s a big deal.”