IBM scientists look to DNA to build future chips

Looking for a way to continually shrink computer chips while still squeezing more transistors onto them, IBM scientists are working on a whole new way to build processors -- using DNA.

For the past year and a half, researchers at IBM have been working on creating a new way to make the patterns used to lay out the transistors and wires that go on a chip. Today, semiconductor manufacturers use optical lithography, which uses light to transfer the pattern. The problem, according to senior manager for materials for advanced technology at IBM, Joe Gordon, is that it's difficult to shrink the pattern using today's techniques.

And since Gordon said 50 per cent of the improvement in processor performance comes from shrinking the pattern, scientists need to come up with a new way to create the patterns.

That's where the DNA strands come into play.

"Right now, the industry road map is [that] we'll get down to 22 nanometre-size features on a chip," Gordon said. "We're looking at ways to go down beyond that. It's very clear it will be difficult to go smaller than that using the optical lithography we know today. Using DNA will help us do that."

A staff scientist at IBM, Greg Wallraff, explained that the researchers are laying single molecules of DNA onto the chip's surface and using them as a template for assembling electronic components, like nanotubes and nanowires. The DNA used by the researchers comes from a virus, he added.

Wallraff said the IBM research team is working with California Institute of Technology scientist Paul Rothemund, who has developed a way to assemble single molecules of DNA into complex structures. Building on that research, the IBM scientists are trying to wrangle the DNA into usable templates.

"People say DNA is the blueprint for life," Wallraff said. "The specific structure of DNA has unique features. It's basically programmable. You can design DNA into unique shapes, with specific attachment sites. Then we pour this DNA solution onto a silicon substrate, and the DNA assembles itself exactly where we want it to on the chip, and then we assemble the components on top of that."

The attachment sites on DNA, which is where the nanowires and transistors would attach on the template, can be made much closer together than with traditional pattern manufacturing techniques. With DNA, the attachment sites are 4nm to 6nm apart. Normally, they're about 45nm apart.

"Think of it as tiling a floor. These DNA pieces are like tiles," explained Gordon. "Each tile has some array of electronic components. Those tiles are placed on a chip in a larger array so there are thousands or millions on a chip. The second step, which we don't know how to do yet, would be to wire them all together. We've got sizes well below conventional lithography."

Once the nanotubes and wires are laid onto the template, the DNA would be extracted. Wallraff said millions of the DNA templates would be needed for a single chip.

Gordon noted that the research team is far from figuring out the whole process needed to make the DNA model work. "We don't have a good picture of exactly how you would do everything," he said. "How do we make the tiles stick together in the right places? Can we get the nanowires to attach to the tiles in the right places? Can we wire them up?"

Wallraff said the next steps will be connect all the tiles together and check the defect levels during assembly.

Actually using this pattern technique is probably 10 to 20 years away, he noted.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Sharon Gaudin

Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott


My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?