IBM – International Business Machines Corp is looking to the building blocks of our bodies — DNA — to be the structure of next-generation microchips.
As chipmakers compete to develop ever-smaller chips at cheaper prices, designers are struggling to cut costs.
Artificial DNA nanostructures, or “DNA origami” may provide a cheap framework on which to build tiny microchips, according to a paper published on Sunday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Microchips are used in computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.
“This is the first demonstration of using biological molecules to help with processing in the semiconductor industry,” IBM research manager Spike Narayan said in an interview with Reuters.
“Basically, this is telling us that biological structures like DNA actually offer some very reproducible, repetitive kinds of patterns that we can actually leverage in semiconductor processes,” he said.
The research was a joint undertaking by scientists at IBM’s Almaden Research Center and the California Institute of Technology.
Right now, the tinier the chip, the more expensive the equipment. Narayan said that if the DNA origami process scales to production-level, manufacturers could trade hundreds of millions of dollars in complex tools for less than a million dollars of polymers, DNA solutions, and heating implements.
“The savings across many fronts could add up significantly,” he said.
But the new processes are at least 10 years out. Narayan said that while the DNA origami could allow chipmakers to build frameworks that are far smaller than possible with conventional tools, the technique still needs years of experimentation and testing.
Scientists working for IBM may have found a way to use DNA – the basic building block of life – to help construct the next generation of semiconductor chips in a breakthrough that would replace the hugely expensive and complex machinery currently used.
As the costs of producing ever smaller and more powerful chips have soared, semiconductor manufacturers have grown increasingly interested in alternative methods for constructing the microcircuits built on the surface of silicon or other semiconductors.
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Scientists have suggested that artificial DNA nanostructures and “DNA origami”, in which a long single strand of DNA is folded into a shape using shorter “staple strands”, could be used to provide a template for the self-assembly of other materials into nanoelectronic or nano-optical devices on the surface of the chip.
Normally, however, DNA origami is formed in solution and uncontrolled deposition results in random arrangements rather than the predictable and repetitive patterns needed to build microcircuitry.
In a research paper published on Sunday in Nature Nanotechnology, the scientific journal, the scientists working at IBM’s Almaden Research Center and the California Institute of Technology suggested a way to overcome this problem that could potentially make it possible to manufacture smaller, faster chips much more cheaply.
The scientists used electron-beam lithography and an etching process to create DNA origami-shaped “binding sites” on silicon and other materials used in chipmaking.
In principle, if the process can be repeated on a large scale, scientists believe these DNA binding sites would provide the molecular “scaffolding” required for the extremely complex arrangements of carbon nanotubes, silicon nano-wires, or quantum dots needed to build next-generation chips far more cheaply than existing process machinery.
However, the technique outlined by the scientists in their research paper will need to be refined and tested – a process that could still take 10 years or more.