10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World
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A world of Lilliputian sensors, transistors, and lasers is in development at nanotechnology labs worldwide. These devices point to a future of ultrafast and cheap electronics and communications. But making nanotechnology relevant beyond the lab is difficult because of the lack of suitable manufacturing techniques. The tools used to mass-produce silicon microchips are far too blunt for nanofabrication, and specialized lab methods are far too expensive and time-consuming to be practical. "Right now everybody is talking about nanotechnology, but the commercialization of nanotechnology critically depends upon our ability to manufacture," says Princeton University electrical engineer Stephen Chou.
A mechanism just slightly more sophisticated than a printing press could be the answer, Chou believes. Simply by stamping a hard mold into a soft material, he can faithfully imprint features smaller than 10 nanometers across. Last summer, in a dramatic demonstration of the potential of the technique, Chou showed that he could make nano features directly in silicon and metal. By flashing the solid with a powerful laser, he melted the surface just long enough to press in the mold and imprint the desired features.
Although Chou was not the first researcher to employ the imprinting technique, which some call soft lithography, his demonstrations have set the bar for nanofabrication, says John Rogers, a chemist at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs. "The kind of revolution that he has achieved is quite remarkable in terms of speed, area of patterning, and the smallest-size features that are possible. It's leading edge," says Rogers. Ultimately, nanoimprinting could become the method of choice for cheap and easy fabrication of nano features in such products as optical components for communications and gene chips for diagnostic screening. Indeed, NanoOpto, Chou's startup in Somerset, NJ, is already shipping nanoimprinted optical-networking components. And Chou has fashioned gene chips that rely on nano channels imprinted in glass to straighten flowing DNA molecules, thereby speeding genetic tests.
Chou is also working to show that nanoimprinting can tackle lithography's grand challenge: how to etch nano patterns into silicon for future generations of high-performance microchips. Chou says he can already squeeze at least 36 times as many transistors onto a silicon wafer as the most advanced commercial lithography tools. But to make complex chips, which have many layers, perfect alignment must be maintained through as many as 30 stamping steps. For Chou's process, in which heat could distort the mold and the wafer, that means each round of heating and imprinting must be quick. With his recent laser-heating innovations, Chou has cut imprinting time from 10 seconds to less than a microsecond. As a result, he has demonstrated the ability to make basic multilayered chips, and he says complex processors and memory chips are next. Chou's other startup, Nanonex in Princeton, NJ, is busy negotiating alliances with lithography tool manufacturers.
Chou's results come at a time when the chipmaking industry has been spending billions of dollars developing exotic fabrication techniques that use everything from extreme ultraviolet light to electron beams. But, says Stanford University nanofabrication expert R. Fabian Pease, "If you look at what the extreme ultraviolet and the electron projection lithography techniques have actually accomplished, [imprint lithography], which has had a tiny fraction of the investment, is looking awfully good." This is sweet vindication for Chou, who began working on nanofabrication in the 1980s, before most of his colleagues recognized that nano devices would be worth manufacturing. "Nobody questions the manufacturing ability of nanoimprint anymore," says Chou. "Suddenly the doubt is gone." - Peter Fairley
NANOIMPRINT LITHOGRAPHY RESEARCHER PROJECT Yong Chen
Hewlett-Packard High-density molecular electronic memory John Rogers
Bell Labs Patterning polymer electronics George Whitesides
Harvard U. Contact printing on flexible substrates Grant Willson
Molecular Imprints High-density microchip fabrication