IBM scientists invented a tiny “chisel” with a heatable silicon tip 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil point. Using this nano-sized tip, which creates patterns and structures on a microscopic scale, it took scientists just 10 minutes and 40 seconds to etch the magazine cover onto a polymer, the same substance of which plastics are made. The resulting magazine cover measures 11 × 14 micrometers, which is so small that 2,000 could fit on a grain of salt.
3D patterning by means of probe-assisted thermal decomposition has been achieved on phthalaldehyde polymer films with 1 nm vertical resolution and 40 nm lateral resolution. Highly efficient patterning is enabled by a self-amplified depolymerization mechanism. Pixel writing speeds on the order of microseconds are demonstrated.
How IBM researchers created the cover
The nanometer-sized tip, which can be heated to 1000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), is attached to a bendable cantilever that controllably scans the surface of the substrate material, in this case a polymer invented by chemists at IBM Research in Almaden, California, with the accuracy of one nanometer—one millionth of a millimeter. By applying heat and force, the tip can remove substrate material based on predefined patterns, thus operating like a “nanomilling” machine or a 3D printer with ultrahigh precision.
Similar to using a 3D printer, more material can be removed to create complex 3D structures with nanometer precision by modulating the force or by readdressing individual spots.
This new capability may impact the prototyping of new transistor devices, including tunneling field effect transistors, for more energy-efficient and faster electronics for anything from cloud data centers to smartphones. By the end of the year IBM hopes to begin exploring the use of this technology to prototype transistor designs made of graphene like materials.
“To create more energy-efficient clouds and crunch Big Data faster, we need a new generation of technologies including novel transistors. But before we can put these future technologies into mass production, we need new techniques for prototyping below 30 nanometers,” said Dr. Armin Knoll, a physicist and inventor at IBM Research. “With our novel technique we can achieve very high resolution at 10 nanometers at greatly reduced cost and complexity. In particular by controlling the amount of material evaporated, we can also produce 3D relief patterns at the unprecedented accuracy of merely one nanometer in a vertical direction. Now it’s up to the imagination of scientists and engineers to apply this technique to real-world challenges.”
Scientists envision many different applications including nano-sized security tags to prevent the forgery of documents like passports and priceless works of art and in the emerging field of quantum computing. One way to connect quantum systems is via electromagnetic radiation or light. The nano-sized tip could be used to create high-quality patterns to control and manipulate light at unprecedented precision.
IBM has licensed this technology to a startup based in Switzerland called SwissLitho, which is bringing the technology to market under the name NanoFrazor. Several weeks ago, the firm shipped its first NanoFrazor to McGill University’s Nanotools Microfab in Canada, where scientists and students will use the tool’s unique fabrication capabilities to experiment with ideas for designing novel nano-devices. To celebrate the tool’s arrival the university created a nano-sized map of Canada measuring 30 micrometers or 0.030 millimeters wide.
For patterning organic resists, optical and electron beam lithography are the most established methods; however, at resolutions below 30 nanometers, inherent problems result from unwanted exposure of the resist in nearby areas. We present a scanning probe lithography method based on the local desorption of a glassy organic resist by a heatable probe. We demonstrate patterning at a half pitch down to 15 nanometers without proximity corrections and with throughputs approaching those of Gaussian electron beam lithography at similar resolution. These patterns can be transferred to other substrates, and material can be removed in successive steps in order to fabricate complex three-dimensional structures.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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