IBM using DNA, nanotech to build next-generation chips

DNA works with nanotubes to build more powerful, energy-efficient easy-to-manufacture chips

Researchers at IBM are using a combination of DNA and nanotechnology in an effort to build more powerful and energy-efficient computer chips that also are cheaper to make.

Powerful. Faster. Energy efficient. Easier to manufacture. IBM says that pretty heady combination is possible because DNA molecules can be used as scaffolding so carbon nanotubes can assemble themselves into precise patterns. This could help chip manufacturers move from 45-nanometer processor technology to 22-nm or smaller, according to IBM.

And that could help processor designers keep pace with Moore's Law -- the more than 40-year-old prediction by Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years.

"The cost involved in shrinking features to improve performance is a limiting factor in keeping pace with Moore's Law and a concern across the semiconductor industry," said Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM Research, in a statement. "The combination of this directed self-assembly with today's fabrication technology eventually could lead to substantial savings in the most expensive and challenging part of the chip-making process."

While companies, like Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have long been cramming more and more transistors -- the building blocks of the processor -- onto a chip, some observers have long predicted that leakage and energy consumption would become significant roadblocks to the law at some point.

And researchers are hot on the trail of technologies that will allow them to continue shrinking chips while also making them more powerful and less expensive to build.

Last fall, researchers at McGill University in Montreal announced that they had found a quasi-three-dimensional electron crystal that could enable them to harness quantum physics to make increasingly small computer chips. The crystal was discovered using a device cooled to a temperature that is 100 times colder than intergalactic space.

And scientists have increasingly been linking biological material -- like DNA -- to electronics and nanotechnology to create powerful hybrids.

Last winter, for instance, researchers at MIT used nanotechnology and DNA together to fight cancerous tumors.

The university announced that a group of scientists there had developed sensors made out of carbon nanotubes that were wrapped in DNA. The sensors then were placed inside living cells to determine whether chemotherapy drugs were reaching their targets or attacking healthy cells.

IBM has been working on this link between DNA and nanotechnology for some time. In February 2008, IBM announced that scientists there were using DNA to find a new way to build processors. Today, IBM shed some light on its progress so far on that front.

Processor manufacturers today use optical lithography, which uses light to transfer the semiconductor pattern. That process can make it difficult for engineers to shrink the pattern, a key part of boosting chip performance.

IBM is looking for the DNA to act as scaffolds, or miniature circuit boards, for the highly precise assembly of chip components, like nanotubes, nanowires and nanoparticles. Using this technique, manufacturers should be able to build "significantly smaller" chips than has been possible with current semiconductor fabrication technology, according to IBM.

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