UCD researchers thinking big to grow little chip


THE first steps towards "growing" the microchips which power modern computers have been taken by researchers at UCD. The technology could form the basis of the next generation of miniature computers.

"We are learning from nature in developing a general strategy of how to build something," explained Dr Donald Fitzmaurice, director of the nanochemistry group at University College Dublin. He said it was akin to nature's own method of assembling chemicals into living tissue.

The research team is to publish its work in two international journals, in the February issue of Chemistry and the March issue of Angewandte Chemie, a leading European chemistry journal.

Microchips are currently made using the "top down" approach, assembled from large pieces of semiconductor and metal. "Very crudely, the semiconductor industry takes a big bit of metal and reduces it down to a chip," said Dr Fitzmaurice.

The research team is attempting to apply a "bottom up" approach, growing chips in solution by encouraging molecules to coalesce in an organised way into a working microchip.

"There is a physical limit to how small we can make chips using current technology and that stage is almost reached. The bottom up approach offers the prospect of further miniaturisation and the intriguing prospect of these things building themselves," said Dr Donald.

"We've managed to take semiconductor particles and coat them with molecules which can recognise another particle also coated with the complementary molecule."

Application of the technology would mean a revolution in miniaturisation. The smallest individual circuits that make up a chip are 500 nanometres (500 one thousandths of a millionth of a meter) across. This new technology offers the prospect of making a circuit 100 times smaller, he said.

Something so small almost defies description, but it is about equivalent to taking a one millionth slice off the width of a penny.

"When we get better at this we will be able to programme major complex assemblies" when growing the microchips, Dr Fitzmaurice said. "And in the very long term, the prospect exists that chips may not only be able to grow themselves, but repair themselves."