IBM Making progress in Nanocircuits Technology
By Jim Marino
What's a nanocircuit, you ask?
Well, let’s just say that sometimes thinking small leads to something big.In one of several research projects into the development of molecular-scale, logic circuitry, IBM scientists recently discovered a new way to send information through the wave nature of electrons, rather than by using conventional wiring.
Why is that big news? Because logic circuits are fundamental to the function of a computer. Building them smaller allows forsmaller chips and a more powerful computerin a smaller package. They might also lead to production breakthroughs that reduce the cost of semiconductor chip processing.
Progress in Nanocircuits Technology
Tiny circuits can lead to tiny transistors.The more transistors you can squeeze onto achip, the faster a chip processes data, and the less energy it needs to run. That’s why smaller has meant better to decades of electronics manufacturers and consumers. The IBM process is named the “quantum mirage” effect. It holds out the promiseof, one day, enabling data transfer within nanoscale electronic circuits, very much a mind-bending proposition. “This is a fundamentally new way of guiding information through a solid,” says IBM Fellow Donald M. Eigler. He is IBM's lead researcher on this project. We call it a mirage because we project information about one atom to another spot where there is no atom.”
Here's how it worked: To create the quantum mirage, scientists moved several dozen cobalt atoms on a copper surface into an ellipse shaped ring. The ring atoms acted as a “quantum corral” — reflecting the copper’s surface electrons within the ring into a wave pattern as predicted by quantum mechanics. The size and shape of the elliptical corral determine its “quantum states” – the energy and spatial distribution of the confined electrons. The IBM scientists used. a quantum state that concentrated large electron densities at each focus point of the elliptical corral. When the scientists placed an atom of magnetic cobalt at one point, a mirage appeared at the other focus: the same electronic states in the Surface electrons surrounding the cobalt atom were detected even though no magnetic atom was actually there.
The intensity of the mirage is about one-third of the intensity around the cobalt at Om. Computer circuitry has been shrinking now for years, getting ever closer to atomic dimensions. As circuitry shrinks, some researchers say, the behavior of electrons change. They go from being like particles described by classical physics to being like waves described by quantum mechanics. That’s an important distinction, because if nanocircuits are to achieve the performance advantages of their small size, tiny wires may not work as well to conduct electrons as quantum analogs might. IBM figures that its quantum mirage technique may prove to be just such a substitute for wires to connect nanocircuit components.
Other teams, other news meanwhile, news wires reports that teams of Scientists from Harvard, Lucent Technologies and Delft University in the Netherlands are all demonstrating that nanoscale electronics can be built in a variety of ways.- They are proving that exotic technologies can yield functioning logic circuits. At Harvard, tests are being conducted on the use of semiconductor nanowires, ultra-microscopically thin strands deposited on silicon.
Crossing two such wires recently led to the development of a rudimentary transistor used to form simple working circuits without the aid of standard manufacturing processes. At Bell Labs, scientists applied an organic chemical on a silicon surface, applied electricity and created a transistor : only one molecule thick. And the Delft team built transistors from carbon nanotubes, small electricity conducting cylinders.
The chip as big business
Those are highlights among an international, scientific push to make computer chips smaller, faster, and cheaper.
The effort shows signs of fueling some U.S. economic growth, perhaps evendriving what may lead to be a technological revolution. Or, maybe even something that will make today’s personal computer look like a relic of a bygone era in only a few short years' time.
Some experts predict, however, that today’s nanocircuitry breakthroughs could become bust outs by 2020. That's about when transistors may have dwindled to atomic scale, and few of the old rules that govern chip design will hold true any more.
Then, we’ll be on the threshold ofentirely new, often unpredictable, way to pursue miniaturization.· But we will not be without some interesting theories to ponder, says R. Stanley Williams, a senior scientist at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif. Biology could provide an answer. Brain cells, for instance, fit molecules into their receptors in much the same way that a key fits into a lock.
Perhaps some secret of nature will resultin our ability to build a cheap transistor in the same way. Other researchers are examining how biological molecules can be mixed with electronics to produce tiny circuit-like devices. It is expected to take years for all this research to develop into a new computer chip.
Of course nanocircuitry is only one Small part of something much larger called nanotechnology, something futurists refer to as “the logical end, the final culmination of man’s quest for control over matter.”
Nanotechnologists say that nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter on the atomic level, things a billion times smaller than the smallest dimensions that we typically encounter. They argue that scientists within the next 50 years may be able to create functional items from extraordinarily small matter, items that can move, communicate and combine with each other to enhance both the worlds of medicine and machines. .
How can this be, you ask? One first must remember that manufactured products come from atoms and that products – any product, really—are the result of the properties of those atoms and how they are arranged. As one scientists explains it, “If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make adiamond. If we rearrange the atoms in sand (and add a few other trace elements) we canmake computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes.”
It is the difference, say members of the scientific community, between today’s relatively crude manufacturing methods, such as casting, grinding and milling and microscopic engineering.- Put another way, it’s the difference between moving atoms around in great herds as opposed to picking and choosing and arranging atoms one by one.
Nanotechnology, it is argued, will allow fundamental building blocks of nature to be snapped together in almost any arrangement imaginable to produce specific results.
The result, say some, will be an entire new generation of products; not just newfangled circuitry and computer chips, but an entire new generation of products that are cleaner, stronger, fighter, and more precise than known today.
Perhaps one could say it would be another small step for mankind.