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Everyday Nanotechnology

The Next Computer Chip

Since the early days of computer technology, the electronics industry has been in a race to produce smaller, faster, and more powerful processors. Today, the basic building block of a computer chip is the transistor. Through a technique called photolithography, millions of transistors are etched onto a silicon wafer. The resulting interconnected assembly of components is called an integrated circuit. Faster processors are fabricated by shrinking transistors and cramming more transistors onto each chip.

The components of a computer chip are so small that they belong to a field called microelectronics. It would seem that the next step in miniaturization would be nanoelectronics. But microelectronic processes cannot be easily translated into the nanoscale. Photolithography at a nanoscale level is difficult and prohibitively expensive. Also, there is no certainty that nanoscale versions of today's transistors would function properly.

Nevertheless, the electronics industry is investigating innovative means of using nanotechnology in fabricating computer chips. In photolithography, the silicon chip is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Nanotechnology offers various alternatives to photolithography, like electron-beam lithography, X-ray lithography, ion-beam lithography, and soft lithography, an easy method of reproducing patterns.

Another possible innovation involves completely replacing the silicon chip with new materials. A chip would consist of carbon nanotube transistors, nanowires, and organic molecules. A particularly radical approach to chip fabrication is the application of the bottom-up method of manufacturing. Instead of carving the circuit out of a chip, the structure would be assembled piece by piece from atoms and molecules.

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