ARCHIVED - Canadian breakthrough paves way for self-assembled transistors

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June 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

With a simple microwave oven, Canadian researchers have opened the door for the next generation of computer chips. 

Using microwaves, a team from the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) and the University of Alberta has shown it’s possible to create manufacturing moulds for the production of smaller and more complex patterns than those currently used in the semiconductor industry. Their achievement could allow the inexpensive production of nano-scale transistors.

University of Alberta/NRC researcher, Xiaojiang Zhang, removes a silicon wafer from a Teflon vessel after a one minute treatment in the microwave oven (rear) to induce self-assembly of the polymer on its surface.

University of Alberta/NRC researcher, Xiaojiang Zhang, removes a silicon wafer from a Teflon vessel after a one minute treatment in the microwave oven (rear) to induce self-assembly of the polymer on its surface.

Since the 1960s, the number of transistors on a computer chip has doubled every 18-24 months as researchers found ways to shrink them ever smaller. But this trend — known as Moore’s law — will end when conventional transistors reach an absolute physical limit. Industry experts believe that by 2018, it will not be possible to make transistors any smaller using photolithography, the conventional process used for patterning semiconductors.

One possible solution involves a nanotechnology process called molecular self-assembly, in which molecules organize themselves into regular shapes and patterns (like DNA coiling into chromosomes). The industry’s International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors suggests that the self-assembly of “block copolymers” could be used to decrease the size and increase the power of computer chips.

The   NRC/University of Alberta research team. Left-to-right: Jeffrey Murphy, Nathanael Wu, Jillian Buriak, Ken Harris,   Xiaojiang Zhang. Credit: Jeffrey Murphy.

The NRC/University of Alberta research team. Left-to-right: Jeffrey Murphy, Nathanael Wu, Jillian Buriak, Ken Harris, Xiaojiang Zhang. Credit: Jeffrey Murphy.

“Block copolymers can self-assemble into nano-scale shapes and patterns that could be useful for chip design and manufacturing, but this process is slow,” says Dr. Jillian Buriak, leader of the materials and interfacial chemistry group at NINT, and a chemistry professor at the University of Alberta. “Normally, you have to heat the molecules for up to 36 hours at high temperature to get them to self-assemble.”

“A block copolymer is simply two types of plastic that we join together chemically. It’s like forcing a group of economists to hold hands with a group of chemists, who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with each other.”— Dr. Jillian Buriak, NINT and the University of Alberta

But this is highly impractical from a manufacturing standpoint, she stresses. According to the industry’s International Technology Roadmap, the self-assembly process must occur in less than four minutes to be economically viable.

Since microwaves are known to accelerate some chemical reactions, Dr. Buriak’s team used a conventional microwave oven to dramatically reduce the time it takes for nano-sized block copolymers to form regular patterns. “We found the processing time decreased from 36 hours to less than one minute,” she says.

“This is one of the first examples of how molecular self-assembly could be used to address a real world problem for the semiconductor industry,” says Dr. Buriak. “We now need to show how you could exploit this process to make complicated structures that are applicable to the design and manufacture of computer chips.”

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