By Chris Sciacca
To create more energy-efficient clouds, crunch Big Data faster and design smaller, instrumented devices for a smarter planet, we need a new generation of technologies. This new generation will require even further improvements at the nano-scale to create more efficient transistors.
But before these microscopic technologies go into mass production, new techniques are needed for creating microscopic prototypes smaller than 30 nanometers — the size when prototyping becomes increasingly difficult. In 2010 IBM scientists published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal of Science demonstrating the technique by designing a nano-sized map of the world and now in 2014 the research is coming to market.
At 50 years old, Moore’s Law has nearly reached its end. For example a processor’s clock speed has barely increased in the last five years, with typical operating frequencies between 2-3 Ghz. In addition, energy consumption for electronic devices is growing at a staggering rate, with estimates reporting that it accounts for up to 10 percent of the total electrical energy generated in industrialized countries.
To continue to scale down the size of transistors, IBM scientists are investigating different materials to replace silicon, and different transistor designs, which of course need to be thoroughly tested before mass production.
Today’s nano-scale prototype designs are fabricated using e-beam lithography, which uses a beam of electrons to create custom patterns for testing. But this equipment is complex and expensive. More importantly, it cannot create 3D patterns at the unprecedented 1 nanometer-depth of accuracy, which is of particular interest for applications such as optical devices to control and manipulate light.
IBM scientists have been working to address these drawbacks, and patented a new tool and technique inspired by hieroglyphics, the ancient written language created by the Egyptians. The core of the technology is a tiny, heatable silicon tip with a sharp apex — 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil. Working like a 3D printer it “chisels” away material by local evaporation, to create patterns and structures as small as 10 nanometers at greatly reduced cost and complexity.
To demonstrate the tool and to stimulate the enthusiasm for nanotechnology for a new generation of scientists, IBM partnered with National Geographic Kids magazine to “chisel” the world’s smallest magazine cover ever. The recently certified Guinness World Records® cover is 11 x 14 micrometers — 2,000 could fit on a grain of salt. The cover, which took 10 minutes to print, was unveiled on 25 April at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.
Current e-beam techniques cannot replicate this new tool’s high resolution, and would take several hours before the cover could be processed and imaged. In addition, the IBM tool can fit on a tabletop and the patterns can be tested as they are written for rapid prototyping.
Besides transistors, IBM scientists envision other applications for the tool including the emerging field of quantum systems. Quantum computers, in theory would be powered by electromagnetic radiation or light at the sub-atomic level. The nano-sized tip’s unprecedented precision could be used to create high quality patterns to create control and light for this purpose.
IBM has licensed the “chiseling” technology to Switzerland-based start-up SwissLitho who is bringing the technology to market under the name NanoFrazor. Several weeks ago, the firm shipped its first NanoFrazor to McGill University’s Nanotools Microfab in Canada where scientists and students will use the tool’s unique fabrication capabilities to experiment with ideas for designing novel nano-devices. To celebrate the tool’s arrival the university created a nano-sized map of Canada measuring 30 micrometers or 0.030 millimeters in length.
IBM received a record 6,809 U.S. patents in 2013, marking the 21st consecutive year in a row that the company topped the annual roundup of patent recipients. More than 8,000 IBM inventors residing in 47 different U.S. states and 41 countries patented a range of nanotechnology and semiconductor inventions in 2013 such as the following patents that enabled the record-setting microscopic 3D printer innovation: U.S. Patent #8,592,955: Accurate deposition of nano-objects on a surface and U.S. Patent #8,574,815: Patterning nano-scale patterns on a film comprising unzipping copolymers.