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IBM's Nanoscale World Map Could Guide Chip Development

By Richard Adhikari
Apr 23, 2010 11:55 AM PT

IBM researchers in Switzerland said they've come up with a patterning technique that lets them create structures as small as 15 nanometers.

IBM's Nanoscale World Map Could Guide Chip Development

nanoscale 3-D map of the world
A heated nanoscale silicon tip, borrowed from atomic force microscopy, is chiseling away material from a substrate to create a nanoscale 3-D map of the world.
(click image to enlarge)

One nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter (mm). In comparison, a human hair is between .03 and .25 mm thick.

Using the nanopatterning technique, the researchers have created a three-dimensional (3-D) replica of the Matterhorn, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, that's 25 nanometers high -- a scale of 1:5 billion. They have also created a 3-D replica of the world that measures 22 by 11 micrometers. That works out to a scale of about 1:11 billion.

The new technology could be useful in the semiconductor industry and other areas.

Nano, Nano

The nanopatterning technique uses a nanoscale tip borrowed from atomic force microscopy to create 2-D and 3-D patterns measuring as small as 15 nanometers.

Atomic force microscopy is a very high-resolution type of scanning probe microscopy that is used to image, measure and manipulate matter at nanoscale sizes. Scanning probe microscopy uses a physical probe to make raster scans of specimens line by line.

IBM's Zurich facility has a history of working in this area -- it invented the scanning tunneling microscope, on which scanning probe microscopy is based. The invention earned the creators, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986. That year, Binnig and two others invented the first atomic force microscope.

How Nanopatterning Technology Works

The nanoscale tip used in IBM's nanopatterning technology is 500 nanometers long and only a few nanometers wide at its tip.

It is attached to a cantilever that scans the surface of material with an accuracy of one nanometer.

The nanoscale tip uses heat and force to remove substrate material in a predefined pattern, rather like a software-guided milling machine. This is essentially computer-controlled sculpting and, like any good sculptor, the tip just removes material that isn't necessary for the image it is working on.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand

The IBM Zurich researchers used nanopatterning technology to create a 25-nanometer-high 3-D replica of the Matterhorn in molecular glass. One nanometer in the replica corresponds to 57 meters of height on the Matterhorn, which stands 4,478 meters tall.

The map of the world created by the IBM researchers was carved out in 2 minutes, 23 seconds. The 3-D representation measures 22 x 11 micrometers. One micrometer is equal to 1,000 nanometers.

In this map, one nanometer corresponds to about 125 meters.

The map of the world consists of 500,000 pixels, each measuring 20 nanometers squared. In comparison, a grain of salt, which is a cube, measures 0.3 mm, or 300 micrometers, on a side.

Possible Uses for Nanopatterning

IBM says nanopatterning could be used in the electronics, opto-electronics, medicine and life sciences industries. It has created a nanoscale pattern in silicon as proof.

Silicon is the material used in making chips, and Carl Howe, director of anywhere research at the Yankee Group, sees the possibilities of using nanopatterning technology in this industry. "The size of chips is defined by how finely we can make structures on them, and IBM's showing that they can make these structures very fine and in 3-D at very small scales," he told TechNewsWorld.

"We're building up more and more layers on a chip to make more and more transistors, so it's not only how wide and tall you can go but how thick you can make a chip," he added.

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