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Monday, 21 February, 2000, 19:13 GMT
Smaller is better
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Scientists are dreaming of a day when making a new computer display will be as easy as feeding plastic film through an inkjet-style printer.

The printer would not be filled with ink but with a chemical solution containing tiny components which organise themselves into a useable, flexible display, delegates to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were told.

This is the kind of long-term goal for researchers at IBM, Sandia National Laboratories and elsewhere who are studying nanotechnology - technology on the atomic scale.

The technology promises:

  • blazingly fast and yet inexpensive computers
  • "smart" fabrics that could open up millions of nanoscale channels when a person was hot or close the channels in the presence of a dangerous chemical
  • nanoscale machines that could be injected into the bloodstream for dialysis or drug delivery.
Smaller, faster, cheaper

Computer makers such as IBM are interested in the technology because making smaller, faster and cheaper computers has relied on the increasingly finer control of the structure of matter for manufacturing, said Thomas Theis, the director of physical science at IBM's Thomas J Watson Research Centre.
We need to learn how to better manipulate individual atoms and their properties
To make the Hollerith Tabulating machine at the turn of the last century, machinists had to manufacture parts with the precision of a millimetre.

In 1960, computer makers could manufacture features for solid-state electronics as small as 10 microns (a micron is a thousandth of a millimetre).

And now computer chipmakers can etch microprocessor features down to 0.1 of a micron.

Computer chips have become faster as they have become smaller, but in 10 to 15 years, the lithographic techniques used now to etch computer chips run into fundamental problems. "The physics does not work," Theis said.

Being able to build circuits and transistors atom by atom might be one solution.

Cheating Moore's Law

The increasing speed of computing was first described by Intel co-founder and now chairman emeritus, Gordon Moore, in the 1960s.

He said that the speed of processors would double about every 18 months, but as chips became faster, he also saw that it would be increasingly expensive to fabricate them.
Some bacteria could show us how to synthesise tiny crystals
At some point, the cost of fabrication might exceed any reasonable price that manufacturers could charge for them, making the technology economically infeasible.

Researchers have learned how to move individual atoms, building nanoscale structures atom by atom, but "the methods are expensive and tedious," Theis said.

The challenge is to find a way to make nanotechnology cost-effective, and researchers already have examples of efficient and cost effective nanoscale manufacturing: nature.

Snowflake analogy

The human body and our own DNA show how a complex system can be made atom by atom. "We need to learn to do some of the tricks that nature does," the IBM researcher said.

They are not looking to make biological computers but rather by using biological techniques to make computers out of silicon.

The right mix of chemicals and the fine control of conditions such as temperature, humidity and pressure, might be able to allow for the self-assembly of complex structures.

He gave the analogy of snowflakes, which are amazingly complex and exhibit almost limitless differentiation. This is achieved by only slight changes in pressure and humidity.

Learning how these conditions and others can affect chemicals, scientists hope to coax them into assembling themselves into crystals and other useful materials. Computer makers see nanoscale technologies as key to the future of information technology.

As computers become faster, smaller and less expensive, Theis said they could tackle bigger problems, make their way into a host of new devices and better interact with their human users.

Kevin Anderson
This is building atom by atom
See also:

20 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
08 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
23 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
13 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
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