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Micro/Nano Lithography

Rice, HP shrink computer chips

New York Times
31 August 2010

Scientists at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard are reporting this week that they can overcome a fundamental barrier to the continued rapid miniaturization of computer memory that has been the basis for the consumer electronics revolution.

The announcements, along with competing technologies being pursued by companies like IBM and Intel, offer hope that the brakes on the ability to pack ever more power into ever smaller devices like laptops, smartphones and digital cameras may not be applied any time soon.

In one of the two new developments, Rice researchers are reporting in Nano Letters that they have succeeded in building reliable small digital switches--an essential part of computer memory--that could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using conventional methods. More important, the advance is based on silicon oxide, one of the basic building blocks of today's chip industry, thus easing a move toward commercialization.

The Rice scientists, Jim Tour, Douglas Natelson, Lin Zhong, and Jun Yao said that PrivaTran, a Texas startup, has made experimental chips using the technique that can store and retrieve information.

Separately, HP is to announce on Tuesday that it will enter into a commercial partnership with a major semiconductor company to produce a related technology that also has the potential of pushing computer data storage to huge densities in the next decade. HP and the Rice scientists are making what are called memristors, or memory resistors, switches that retain information without a source of power.

"There are a lot of new technologies pawing for attention," said Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group, a consumer electronics market research company in Seaford, N.Y. "When you get down to these scales, you're talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip."

The announcements are significant in part because they indicate that the chip industry may find a way to preserve the validity of Moore's Law.