Computer chips tied to nanotech's future

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Jan. 25, 2002 at 10:26 AM
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LAS VEGAS, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Today's cutting-edge science creates nanodevices made of only a few atoms or molecules, but older techniques for creating much larger computer chips will remain essential in making nanodevices practical, experts told United Press International.

Henry Baltes, professor of physical electronics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, studies the processes involved in building integrated circuits on silicon chips. He discussed the technology's impact on nanodevices and their larger siblings, microelectromechanical systems, during the MEMS 2002 conference.

"Much of the (MEMS) technology has been fathered by the chip industry," Baltes told UPI. "The equipment we are using also comes from there, but then (MEMS) kind of took off, and now there are many things done which are alien to the chip industry."

For instance, chips are built using silicon, metals and their oxides, and can withstand high processing temperatures. MEMS devices and their smaller nanodevice counterparts, however, can require far more heat-sensitive polymers and other semi-organic components. The extreme surface smoothness required to fabricate things on an atomic or molecular scale also causes problems for chipmaking equipment, Baltes said.

These inconsistencies have to be surmounted, however. The massive manufacturing base behind computer chips has made them inexpensive, and the same economies of scale will be needed to bring MEMS into the mainstream. Baltes said the challenge excites longtime chip engineers.

Chipmaking techniques actually could be essential in making nanodevices useful, he said, since the chips could prove the easiest way to handle and package the smaller items. Many biomedical applications for nanodevices also could need the kind of electrical interface chipmaking skills can create, he said.

Removing the relatively expensive silicon from the process will be a far more difficult hurdle, but nonetheless necessary to further reduce the price of nanodevices, Baltes said.

"The present devices (with little silicon) show rather poor performance, but there's hope that they can get better and better," Baltes said. "Eventually we could have inkjet printers make your devices, as opposed to a (chipmaking plant)."

Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., said there is still plenty of room left to adapt current technology to MEMS devices. Most of the work done in the field today relies on silicon in any case, she told UPI.

Both Baltes and Bourne said the most immediate need for the MEMS/nanodevice market is learning how to integrate the new components into useful systems. At the moment, electronics companies face massive redesign issues in bringing emerging MEMS into existing devices, Bourne said.

Co-sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Robotics and Automation Society, the MEMS 2002 conference displayed the latest research into devices ranging in size from a small computer chip down to a few molecules. Scientists expect the technology to provide breakthroughs in several areas, including medicine, computers and robotics, in the next few years.

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