IBM integrates carbon nanotubes into mainstream chip manufacturing

By Peter Gothard
29 Oct 2012 View Comments
Inside one of TMSC's semiconductor foundries

Scientists at IBM have showcased computer chips featuring carbon nanotube technology, and apparently built with standard manufacturing techniques.

This new approach, hopes IBM, will open up the way for commercial mass-production of carbon nanotube-based chips, solving the ongoing problem of silicon transistor technology reaching a miniaturisation limit.

Further reading

Moore's Law, first described by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore in 1965, states that the number of components on integrated circuits will double every year. Reality has more or less followed this pattern. However, some scientists believe that as silicon wafers shrink to around 5nm thickness, the limits to Moore's Law will be reached as the wafers overheat.

Carbon nanotube technology has superior conductive properties, enabling it potentially to carry higher currents. Chip manufacturers will still hit the same miniturisation walls in the end, but will be able to create faster processors than silicon before they do.

In the past, the problem with realising carbon nanotube-based chips has been difficulties in handling the materials. IBM believes it has now cracked the formula.

"The approach developed at IBM Labs paves the way for circuit fabrication with large numbers of carbon nanotube transistors at predetermined substrate positions," says IBM's research labs blog.

"The ability to isolate semiconducting nanotubes and place a high density of carbon devices on a wafer is crucial to assess their suitability for a technology – eventually more than one billion transistors will be needed for future integration into commercial chips."

Up to now, continues the blog, only a few hundred carbon nanotubes have been able to be placed on a chip, which is nowhere near enough for commercial applications. The newly announced process places a nanotube between 150 and 200 bilionths of a metre, a scale that IBM says is a factor of 10 away from a workable commercial solution.

Supratik Guha, director of physical sciences at IBM research, admits the technology is still far from being ready for commercial use, but says that progress is encouraging:

"There are challenges to address such as ultra high purity of the carbon nanotubes and deliberate placement at the nanoscale," says Guha, describing both quality of materials and precision in their manufacture, "[but] we have been making significant strides in both."

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