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Archive for October 29th, 2012

Think Small: IBM Researchers Demonstrate Carbon Nanotubes, Potential Silicon Successors

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Since I posted about Hurricane Sandy earlier in the day, I’ve seen some pretty stunning pictures and video coming in, and heard more reports from friends in and around the New York City area.

The story of the crane toppling over on a very tall building being built on West 57th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues (my old IBM office is at Madison and 57th, further east) was most stunning. You can find some of the pics or video on CNN.

While we wait to discover how big a problem Sandy presents to the northeast Atlantic coast, I’ll share with you a diversion focusing on a much smaller topic — but one with potentially huge implications.

IBM scientists recently demonstrated a new approach to carbon technology that opens up the path for commercial fabrication of dramatically smaller, faster and more powerful computer chips.

For the first time, more than ten thousand working transistors made of nano-sized tubes of carbon have been precisely placed and tested in a single chip using standard semiconductor processes.

These carbon devices are poised to replace and outperform silicon technology allowing further miniaturization of computing components and leading the way for future microelectronics.

Four Decades Of Innovation

Aided by rapid innovation over four decades, silicon microprocessor technology has continually shrunk in size and improved in performance, thereby driving the information technology revolution.

Silicon transistors, tiny switches that carry information on a chip, have been made smaller year after year, but they are approaching a point of physical limitation.

Their increasingly small dimensions, now reaching the nanoscale, will prohibit any gains in performance due to the nature of silicon and the laws of physics. Within a few more generations, classical scaling and shrinkage will no longer yield the sizable benefits of lower power, lower cost and higher speed processors that the industry has become accustomed to.

Carbon nanotubes represent a new class of semiconductor materials whose electrical properties are more attractive than silicon, particularly for building nanoscale transistor devices that are a few tens of atoms across.

Electrons in carbon transistors can move easier than in silicon-based devices allowing for quicker transport of data. The nanotubes are also ideally shaped for transistors at the atomic scale, an advantage over silicon.

These qualities are among the reasons to replace the traditional silicon transistor with carbon — and coupled with new chip design architectures — will allow computing innovation on a miniature scale for the future.

The approach developed at IBM labs paves the way for circuit fabrication with large numbers of carbon nanotube transistors at predetermined substrate positions. The ability to isolate semiconducting nanotubes and place a high density of carbon devices on a wafer is crucial to assess their suitability for a technology — eventually more than one billion transistors will be needed for future integration into commercial chips.

Hardly A Carbon Copy

Until now, scientists have been able to place at most a few hundred carbon nanotube devices at a time, not nearly enough to address key issues for commercial applications.

Originally studied for the physics that arises from their atomic dimensions and shapes, carbon nanotubes are being explored by scientists worldwide in applications that span integrated circuits, energy storage and conversion, biomedical sensing and DNA sequencing.

This achievement was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Carbon, a readily available basic element from which crystals as hard as diamonds and as soft as the “lead” in a pencil are made, has wide-ranging IT applications.

Carbon nanotubes are single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The carbon nanotube forms the core of a transistor device that will work in a fashion similar to the current silicon transistor, but will be better performing. They could be used to replace the transistors in chips that power our data-crunching servers, high performing computers and ultra fast smart phones.

Earlier this year, IBM researchers demonstrated  carbon nanotube transistors can operate as excellent switches at molecular dimensions of less than ten nanometers – the equivalent to 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair and less than half the size of the leading silicon technology. Comprehensive modeling of the electronic circuits suggests that about a five to ten times improvement in performance compared to silicon circuits is possible.

There are practical challenges for carbon nanotubes to become a commercial technology notably, as mentioned earlier, due to the purity and placement of the devices. Carbon nanotubes naturally come as a mix of metallic and semiconducting species and need to be placed perfectly on the wafer surface to make electronic circuits. For device operation, only the semiconducting kind of tubes is useful which requires essentially complete removal of the metallic ones to prevent errors in circuits.

Also, for large scale integration to happen, it is critical to be able to control the alignment and the location of carbon nanotube devices on a substrate.

To overcome these barriers, IBM researchers developed a novel method based on ion-exchange chemistry that allows precise and controlled placement of aligned carbon nanotubes on a substrate at a high density — two orders of magnitude greater than previous experiments, enabling the controlled placement of individual nanotubes with a density of about a billion per square centimeter.

The process starts with carbon nanotubes mixed with a surfactant, a kind of soap that makes them soluble in water. A substrate is comprised of two oxides with trenches made of chemically-modified hafnium oxide (HfO2) and the rest of silicon oxide (SiO2). The substrate gets immersed in the carbon nanotube solution and the nanotubes attach via a chemical bond to the HfO2 regions while the rest of the surface remains clean.

By combining chemistry, processing and engineering expertise, IBM researchers are able to fabricate more than ten thousand transistors on a single chip.

Furthermore, rapid testing of thousands of devices is possible using high volume characterization tools due to compatibility to standard commercial processes.

As this new placement technique can be readily implemented, involving common chemicals and existing semiconductor fabrication, it will allow the industry to work with carbon nanotubes at a greater scale and deliver further innovation for carbon electronics.

You can learn more in the animation below.

Written by turbotodd

October 29, 2012 at 8:02 pm


with one comment

Hurricane Sandy is rapidly approaching the Atlantic coast of the U.S.. As of 8 a.m., the huge storm was producing sustained winds of 85 miles per hour after turning north northwest toward the coastline of New Jersey, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center of the storm is now moving at 20 m.p.h., a significant speedup from earlier in the morning.

If it’s Monday, it must be time for a Hurricane.

And I’m not referring to the cocktail emanating from Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans.

Hurricane Sandy is drifting up the Atlantic coast and is expected to make landfall later this afternoon, probably somewhere in New Jersey.

But as of 8:52 CST this morning, she’s already having an impact well in to New York City. I’ve already seen Twitpics of Battery Park City starting to surrender to the surge, which is truly frightening considering how much of the storm is still yet to come.

As an FYI, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have eliminated their paywalls and are making their content free, if you’re looking for up-to-the-minute updates on the storm.

YouTube is also streaming The Weather Channel (where NBC’s Al Roker was just seen trying to stay vertical at Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey).

I spoke with a good friend of mine who lives on the edge of Cobble Hill (in Brooklyn), and he indicated the water had not yet lapped over the piers there, but that it was likely only a matter of time.  Forecasters are expecting a 6-to-11 surge when high tide strikes around 8 tonight.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo just held a press conference and announced the closing of both the Holland and Brooklyn Battery tunnels at 2 P.M. EST.

If you’re interested in seeing more detaila about the storm, Google’s offering up its “Crisis Map” here, and a more specific look at NYC here.

On Twitter, the National Hurricane Center is offering facts and tips at @NHC_Atlantic, and the Weather Channel can be followed at @weatherchannel.

I was living in NYC in 1985 during Hurricane Gloria, and that storm paled by comparison.  So, please, be safe out there, stay away from the ocean, stay inside, and ride this sucker out as safely as you can!

UPDATE: I just built this Turbo Sandy Twitter list, with a list of followees from a variety of media and government sources, including the Weather Channel, NASA, FEMA, and a variety of others.

Written by turbotodd

October 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

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