IBM has developed an imaging technique that is capable of seeing the molecular bonds between atoms. This is a big deal not in some metaphysical way like finding the Higgs Boson particle was a big deal, but in a practical way because it could enable the creation of next generation semiconductors. And those next generation semiconductors are important because without them our progress on building cheaper and faster devices or better cellular networks will grind to a halt.
The chip world is close to hitting a wall because cramming billions of transistors on something that’s smaller than your fingernail is really hard. But it can and is done by the chip industry every single day. What’s harder though is breaking the laws of physics in order to keep piling those transistors onto ever smaller chips, but if we want our devices to get smarter, faster and cheaper that may be what we have to do.
For example, Intel is currently making its fastest chips with line widths of 22 nanometers but has plans to get down to five nanometers (the smaller those line widths, the more transistors you can put on the chip). To get to the 22 nanometer point required Intel researchers to re-invent the transistor, which took Intel scientists a decade. Like, I said. This is hard.
IBM also makes chips and has its own R&D efforts aimed at keeping the cheaper and faster curve enabled by Moore’s Law going. But before it (or Intel) can go breaking the laws of physics, scientists have to have the tools to know what the heck they are doing, which is why IBM’s announcement today is such a big deal.
IBM’s atomic force microscopy technique will allow researchers see the chemical bonds between carbon atoms and eventually the bonds between atoms in manufactured sheets of carbon called graphene. For chipmakers, graphene is emerging as a possible replacement for silicon in some areas, although it’s far too early to tell. Plenty of universities and white coated folks in corporate labs are playing around with getting graphene hoping for a breakthrough that could lead to better wireless radios, more efficient solar panels, better batteries, new displays and even faster CPUs.
From IBM’s release:
The individual bonds between carbon atoms in such molecules differ subtly in their length and strength. All the important chemical, electronic, and optical properties of such molecules are related to the differences of bonds in the polyaromatic systems. Now, for the ﬁrst time, these differences were detected for both individual molecules and bonds. This can increase basic understanding at the level of individual molecules, important for research on novel electronic devices, organic solar cells, and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). In particular, the relaxation of bonds around defects in graphene as well as the changing of bonds in chemical reactions and in excited states could potentially be studied.
So while you may never need to use an atomic force microscope (it has a tip that is terminated with a single carbon monoxide molecule!) rest assured that a crew of researchers are diligently playing with it in the hopes that your 2025 mobile phone has a sweet display and a longer-lasting battery.