Keep Your Eyes on the Atoms

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-06-25

IBMs Almaden Research Center ( celebrated its 15th anniversary this month, holding briefings that included key topics in nanotechnology—which Ill define as any process that manipulates atoms as individual objects.

To clarify the difference between tomorrows nanotech and todays submicroscopic manufacturing, let me borrow from Ralph Merkle at Zyvex (www.zyvex. com/nano): Breaking through to nanotech is like taking off a pair of boxing gloves and suddenly being able to snap Lego blocks together in precise arrangements, rather than just sorting them by color and arranging them in piles.

Merkle is emphatic about the difference between nanotechnology and mere nanoscale fabrication. Its useful, he observes, to build chips with conductive paths that are less than a micron wide, but its not the same as being able to place an atom of a particular element at a specific location to produce a desired electronic effect.

IBMs Almaden researchers are manipulating atoms, all right: Were talking about the folks who spelled out the letters IBM in xenon atoms back in 1989. But theyre also looking at the zone where present-day bulk techniques bump up against atomic-scale limitations, below 100 nanometers.

Things are actually getting pretty crowded down in nanoland: Intel engineers announced this month their combination of several methods to carve out electronic gates only 20 nanometers long, enabling switching rates of 1,500GHz (packing devices 25 times more densely than a Pentium).

The next step, of course, is nanoscale devices that can duplicate themselves, potentially leading to the runaway production called the "gray goo" scenario. As Hunter Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

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