Potential new micromanufacturing technique to make tinier circuits wins NSF funding

With an eye on the trends of modern computing, Moore’s law — formulated by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore in 1975 — posits that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years.

That prediction more or less has held true for the past 45 years, but as our can’t-live-without devices get smaller, the ability to make increasingly tinier circuits is hitting a technological wall. Researchers are trying to find the best and most economical ways to etch electronic pathways below 10 nanometers wide — about a thousandth the width of a human hair.

A Binghamton University research project recently won a three-year, $609,436 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate a new method of producing these microscopic circuits.

Leading the research will be Assistant Professor Jia Deng (principal investigator) from the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering; and Professor Changhong Ke (co-principal investigator) from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science. The two have been collaborators since Deng arrived at Binghamton in 2017.

Their plan is to utilize the same technique as an atomic force microscope, which scans samples down to fractions of a nanometer (more than 1,000 times smaller than optical microscopes) using a mechanical probe to “feel” a sample and translate the data into images.

Instead of “feeling” the surface, Deng and Ke will use carbon nanotubes — made from one of the strongest substances ever created — around 3.1 nanometers wide to etch the desired circuit patterns onto the material.

If the nanomanufacturing technique proves successful, it would be less expensive and more efficient than comparable methods. A Dutch company can create central processing units (CPUs) with circuits at 7 nanometers and below through extreme ultraviolet lithography, but their equipment can cost $120 million each. Machines using helium ion beams can go below 10 nanometers, but they are also very expensive.

By comparison, an atomic force microscope costs around $100,000 to $200,000, and the modifications for circuit production are potentially inexpensive.

“This setup is relatively low-cost compared to other existing nanopatterning equipment or techniques, such as laser-based or electron beam-based setups,” Deng said.

By adding an electrical field, thermal heating and mechanical vibration to their nanomanufacturing technique, Deng and Ke hope for a wider range of potential applications, as well as cutting down on post-production processing.

“By using these nanotubes, it has a very sharp tip and also can resist wear,” Ke said. “Generally, if you have a sharp tip and you make contact with a surface, the tip will become dull, and that will significantly reduce the pattern resolutions and efficiency.”

As the head of Watson College’s Nanomechanics Laboratory, he sees what he and Deng could achieve if their research is a success: “Our technique could break down the 5-nanometer barrier. That would lead to a big breakthrough for the semiconductor and electronics industries.

The research marks Deng’s first award from the NSF — a badge of honor in the scientific community — and he is grateful for the support from Ke, Watson College and the University that led to it.

“It’s very good news for me, and I’m very excited to have this project funded,” he said. “Hopefully we will do some good research and get more funding in the future.”

Deng and Ke’s study is “Multiple-Energy-Assisted Ultrasharp Probe-Based Nanomanufacturing for High-Resolution and High-Efficiency Nanopatterning” (NSF Grant #2006127).

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