IBM Looks to DNA To Self-Assemble Future Chips

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Technology giant IBM has always invested tremendous amounts of money and talent into technology research, and has one of the largest (perhaps the largest) patent portfolio in the world to show for its efforts. Today, IBM announced another technology breakthrough that, in a decade or so, may revolutionize the way computer CPUs and other microprocessors are made: the company has come up with a way to use organic DNA molecules as a scaffold on which nanotubes and nanowires can self-assemble in precise patterns compatible with today’s lithographic chip-making technology. The technology may enable chip features smaller than 22nm—IBM is currently pushing traditional chip techniques towards 28nm—and may ultimately help make chips smaller and more power efficient.

IBM says the technique marks the first time biological molecules have been used to help with semiconductor processing and manufacture. The technique was a joint undertaking of IBM Research and the California Institute of Technology.

“The cost involved in shrinking features to improve performance is a limiting factor in keeping pace with Moore’s Law and a concern across the semiconductor industry,” said IBM Research’s manager of science and technology Spike Narayan, in a statement. “The combination of this directed self-assembly with today’s fabrication technology eventually could lead to substantial savings in the most expensive and challenging part of the chip-making process.”

Dubbed “DNA origami,” the techniques put a long strand of viral DNA in a solution with individual DNA molecules and short synthetic oligonucleotide strands. The individual DNA molecules bond with the long DNA segment, with the small segments functioning as staples that hold the viral DNA in a particular 2D shape. Here’s the trick: those oligonucleotide strands can be modified to have attachment points for nanoscale items like carbon nanotubes or silicon nanowires as small as 6 nm, meaning the process can be used to create triangles, squares, and other shapes from about 100 to 150 nm on a side, but the thickness of just the DNA double helix. These templates can then be used in traditional optical or laser lithography to etch out patterns used for chips.

If the process lives up to its promise, researchers estimate it will still be 10 years or more before products using the process come to market, but the technology holds the promise of chipmaking techniques that create much smaller components than are available today with a much simpler (and less expensive) production process.

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