Manufacturers are obsessed with building ever smaller and more powerful computer chips, which promise better computing power and flexibility. As a result, Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors packed into circuits will roughly double every 18 months to two years, has held true. However, at some point chips made of silicon will no longer be practical, which is why new materials like carbon nanotubes have been studied in recent years as potential replacements.
But these materials aren’t ready and silicon chips haven’t hit their limit yet, so the new SHARP microscope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory could help chip designers continue to shrink their products. Companies intend to use the microscope to shrink silicon circuit components to just a few nanometers in size–thinner than a cell membrane and five to 10 times smaller than circuit parts today.
Scientists have created much smaller circuit parts, including a transistor made from a single phosphorous atom. But silicon is cheap and intimately familiar to manufacturers. New materials aren’t proven to be ready for mass production.
That’s why SHARP is of interest. Silicon circuits are built with a light. An image of a circuit is shrunk down and projected onto a silicon wafer covered in film that is sensitive to light. Smaller light wavelengths allow smaller circuits to be etched into the wafer. SHARP uses extreme ultraviolet wavelengths 15 times smaller than what is currently used. Four decades ago, the industry was using visual light.
“… You want to use all the physics you can to make those circuits as small as possible,” Berkeley Lab researcher Kenneth Goldberg said in a statement. “This tool will let companies look way into the future.”