December 06, 2012
Look Inside a Futuristic Nanotech Lab
By: Michael Belfiore
Source: Popular Mechanics
The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, or CNSE, at the
State University of New York at Albany is one of the country’s biggest
centers for pushing the boundaries of nanotechnology to build
ever-smaller computer chips and electrical systems.
Richard Feynman famously said that there’s plenty of room at the
bottom. Room to build complex structures, machines, and computing
engines at the size of individual molecules and even atoms.
is this more evident than at the NanoTech Complex, which is run by the
College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, or CNSE, at the State
University of New York at Albany. Sprawling over more than a half-dozen
buildings in three locations, the $14 billion facility includes 800,000
square feet packed with advanced laboratories and computer-chip
manufacturing equipment. Here, about 2600 researchers, engineers, and
technicians working for the U.S. military, research institutions from
around the world, and the world’s top semiconductor-makers are pushing
their way into ever smaller realms in the quest for faster and more
energy-efficient computers, micro-electromechanical systems, sensors
than can be embedded in anything from a helicopter rotor blade to a
human tooth, and more.
Technicians and engineers dressed head to
toe in white gowns work in clean rooms behind glass, isolated from the
rest of the world and its microscopic, airborne contaminants. They move
300- and 450-millimeter-diameter silicon wafers from toolbox-size
front-opening unified pods, or FOUPs, and feed them into
multimillion-dollar photolithography machines, deposition machines, or
other chip-manufacturing equipment. Layer by layer these machines build
up the transistors, wiring, and other components of the microscopic
circuits that comprise advanced computer chips in development. Workers
move carts of plastic-wrapped FOUPs from one ultraclean building to
another along enclosed walkways, adding to the impression of an enclosed
city built to house the technologies of the very small.
mayor of this city is the CEO of the CNSE and professor of nanoscience,
Alain Kaloyeros. Eschewing suits for ripped jeans and black, 3-button
long-sleeve T-shirts, the 50-something Greek Lebanese has brought
together a university, top semiconductor- and computer-makers including
IBM, Intel, Samsung, GlobalFoundries, and U.S. government research in
one facility. This makes it the only research center of its kind in the
world. All the major chip-makers have their own labs. But nowhere else
do they share those facilities with their competitors and students
working side by side on the same state-of-the-art equipment.
result, Kaloyeros says, is a kind of nanotech Switzerland—a neutral
ground where researchers and engineers pooling their resources and
talents can make breakthroughs that would be out of reach elsewhere.
"You can have the best subsidy ever from companies," he said at a recent
public talk at the complex, "and if you don’t have the right
educational programs and the right innovation at the university, they’re
never going to stay."
Lithography vs Moore’s Law
to the complex’s work is developing not only prototypes of new tech,
but also the techniques needed to manufacture them at the scale needed
for industrial production. Engineering manager Christopher Borst tells
PM that many of the same machines used in industrial production can be
tweaked to make the advancements in that are in progress at the complex.
photolithography, the process by which all current computer chips are
made, light shines through a specially designed mask onto a silicon
wafer that has been coated with light-sensitive photoresist. When dipped
in etching chemicals, the photoresist that has been exposed to light
washes away, readying the wafer for the next steps in creating the
multiple layers that build up to form transistors and other structures.
Further steps include depositing ultrathin layers of conducting metals
to form connections between components on the chip.
Here at the
complex, engineers are pushing Moore’s Law—which predicts a doubling of
transistor density on chips every two years—to its limits with
technologies like FinFETs, or fin-shaped field effect transistors.
Instead of building transistors in the standard two-dimensional
configuration, FinFETs stick up out of the surface of the wafer. "You
stand four of them up in the area that you used to need to make one,"
Borst explained on a recent tour of the complex, "so that you can pack
in more chips."
Another tech that’s pushing the boundaries here:
extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, lithography. Current lithography uses
193-nanometer wavelengths of light. EUV lithography pushes that down to
13.5 nanometers to build smaller structures. In early 2013 the complex
will receive one of the few machines in the world capable of EUV
lithography—the NXE:3300, built by Dutch company ASML—which will be
installed in the facility’s NanoFab Xtension. Now nearing completion,
the Xtension adds 500,000 square feet to the complex.
transistors are about 22 nanometers wide, Kaloyeros says. But sooner or
later Moore’s Law will bump into the limits of today’s manufacturing
technology. "It’s going to run into probably a 4-nanometer, 3-nanometer
[limit]. And then we’re going to switch to bottom-up nanotechnology."
technologies in development at the Nanotech Complex include directed
self-assembly, which has the potential to coax molecules to assemble
themselves into circuit structures via magnetic fields and other means.
Chips based on carbon (in forms such as graphene) rather than silicon
also show promise to be thinner than today’s chips—if nanotech experts
can devise the means to build them robustly enough for industrial
All of this would enable smaller, more
energy-efficient, and more powerful computers; embedded sensors; silicon
photonics that combine light and electricity on the same chip for
information processing; and a host of other innovations.