Photolithography is running up against its limitations, as logic circuits become so small that the wavelength of light itself is too large to mask the patterns accurately. MIT boffins reckon they have a solution, though: self-assembling semiconductor circuits [via NextBigFuture].
Berggren and Ross’ approach is to use electron-beam lithography sparingly, to create patterns of tiny posts on a silicon chip. They then deposit specially designed polymers — molecules in which smaller, repeating molecular units are linked into long chains — on the chip. The polymers spontaneously hitch up to the posts and arrange themselves into useful patterns.
The trick is that the polymers are “copolymers,” meaning they’re made of two different types of polymer. Berggren compares a copolymer molecule to the characters played by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in the movie Midnight Run, a bounty hunter and a white-collar criminal who are handcuffed together but can’t stand each other. Ross prefers a homelier analogy: “You can think of it like a piece of spaghetti joined to a piece of tagliatelle,” she says. “These two chains don’t like to mix. So given the choice, all the spaghetti ends would go here, and all the tagliatelle ends would go there, but they can’t, because they’re joined together.” In their attempts to segregate themselves, the different types of polymer chain arrange themselves into predictable patterns.
Clever stuff, though still very much in the developmental stages. Maybe another new lease of life for Moore’s Law?