IBM reports microchip breakthrough

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SAN FRANCISCO -- IBM scientists are reporting progress in a chip-making technology that is likely to ensure the shrinking of the basic digital switch at the heart of modern microchips for more than another decade.

The advance, first described Sunday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, is based on carbon nanotubes, exotic molecules that have long held out promise as an alternative material to silicon from which to create the tiny logic gates that are now used by the billions to create microprocessors and memory chips. The IBM researchers at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., have been able to pattern an array of carbon nanotubes on the surface of a silicon wafer and use them to build chips that are hybrids of silicon and carbon nanotubes with more than 10,000 working transistors.

Against all expectations, the silicon chip has continued to improve in both speed and capacity for the last five decades. In recent decades, however, there has been growing uncertainty over whether the technology will continue to improve. The end of the microelectronics era would inevitably stall a growing array of industries that have fed off the falling cost and increasing performance of computer chips.

Chip makers have routinely doubled the number of transistors that can be etched on the surface of silicon wafers by routinely shrinking the tiny switches that store and route the ones and zeros that are processed by digital computers. They have long since shrunk the switches to less than a wavelength of light, and they are rapidly approaching dimensions that can be measured in terms of the widths of just a few atoms.

The process has been characterized as Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, who in 1965 noted that the industry was doubling the number of transistors it could build on a single chip at routine intervals of 12 to 18 months. To continue the process, semiconductor engineers have had to consistently perfect an array of related manufacturing systems and materials that continue to perform at an ever tinier scale.

The IBM advance is significant, scientists said, because the chip-making industry has not yet found a way forward beyond the next two or three generations of silicon.

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