IBM zooms into molecule for power-efficient chip research

IBM hopes to make manipulation of molecules in chips easier with the research breakthrough

IBM has for the first time taken an image of a molecule's surface, which could lead to the construction of cheaper, more power-efficient chips, the company said Thursday.

The image maps the anatomy of a molecule at an atomic scale, which could help researchers understand and manipulate molecules and atoms in chips.

"Basically it's a pioneering science achievement that helps open up exciting new possibilities for exploring electronic building blocks and devices at the ultimate atomic and molecular scale -- devices that might be vastly smaller, faster and more energy-efficient than today's processors and memory devices," said an IBM spokeswoman in an e-mail.

For decades chip makers have been etching smaller patterns on chip surfaces to speed up performance and reduce power consumption. But as chips get smaller, the assembly and fabrication of chips becomes far more difficult and expensive.

Many experiments in IBM's nanotechnology research initiative focus on technology that could make chips smaller, faster and more power-efficient in the future.

In the experiment, IBM scientists were able to map the chemical structure of a pentacene molecule using atomic force microscopy (AFM). The probe microscope was able to provide scientists with an atomic-level view of the molecule as viewed in chemistry textbooks, which could be an important step in understanding future chip structures.

Pentacene molecules could be deposited in transistors that are used in semiconductors, according to IBM researchers.

The role of individual molecules is still not fully known when it comes to developing chips, said Gerhard Meyer, a scientist at IBM Research in Zurich, in an e-mail.

There are examples of using a single molecule as a memory element, and there is a larger question surrounding how a large number of molecules contact and connect to form molecular networks.

With this development, IBM is making progress in studying the transport of individual electrons in molecules or across molecular networks.

The study also helps better understand how a charge distribution occurs across the molecular networks, which is an essential element in building smaller and more power-efficient chips.

"It will, for example, help us to understand how the molecular geometry changes if we change the charge of the molecule," Meyer said. "What we want is an atomic/molecular level understanding of these processes."

Fully understanding molecules for basic chip research could be 10 to 20 years away, Meyer said.

Earlier this month, IBM made a research breakthrough when researchers said they were experimenting with the use of DNA -- one of the body's building blocks -- as a way to create tiny circuits that could form the basis of smaller, more powerful computer chips.

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