31 July 2013

Self-organizing ‘giant surfactants’ can take chips below 10nm

In the quest for faster processors that generate less heat, engineers have worked hard over the years to perfect more intricate fabrication procedures. Packing more transistors into a smaller space has allowed computing power to balloon in recent years, but how much further can we go? A team of researchers at the University of Akron have developed a new type of nanomaterial that could make semiconductors more efficient than ever.

The researchers, led by Dr. Stephen Z.D. Cheng of UA’s College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, call the material a giant surfactant. While made up of individual nanoparticles, the giant surfactant takes its name from the fact that the assembled molecule is similar in scale to run-of-the-mill macromolecules. However, giant surfactants are of interest because they retain their surfactant functionality on the nanoscale.

A surfactant is a general term for any compound that can lower the surface tension of a liquid. A great many substances have surface tension, but water is the one that people are most familiar with. Surface tension is the force that allows water to form droplets, rather than simply flow outward. Surfactants are important in making semiconductors because the fluids used in various production steps have surface tension, and controlling that quality is vital to guiding them into narrow trenches and other small features. Without very precise control, transistors can’t be placed very close together.

A giant surfactant could revolutionize the production of electronics by allowing engineers to build considerably more dense chips. The University of Akron researchers used nanopatterning to construct the giant surfactant structures from the nanoscale components. Although, the nanomolecules do most of the work — nanopatterning is a kind of self-assembly.

Giant surfactants form a thin-film, organized lithographic pattern on semiconductor crystals, which acts as a guide for the production process. Because the molecules self-assemble, the structure is incredibly consistent, which could mean less waste from faulty transistors in the final product.

Current semiconductor manufacturing processes have reached 22nm, which is the distance between the transistors on a chip. Intel’s Ivy Bridge and Haswell are both based on the 22nm process, whereas the most recent ARM CPU cores are still 32nm and 28nm. It is not clear that Moore’s law will hold up much longer with current materials, but the researchers believe giant surfactants could make continued advancement possible. In fact, Dr. Cheng claims that giant surfactants could enable sub-10nm spacing of components.

As computing increasingly moves to mobile devices, having smaller, more powerful processors is of high importance. The lattice formed by giant surfactants provides a ready-made template for creating the necessary chips. The team has hope this is not just a discovery of great scientific interest, but one of enormous practical importance as well. The University of Akron Research Foundation is seeking to patent materials developed by Dr. Cheng and his colleagues.


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