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Science & Technology
Nano Technology

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Special Report

Small is good but tiny is best

By Diana J. Choyce
Oct 04 - 10, 1999

Imagine a CD to be no larger than a penny that would hold 180 gigabits of information or 5 hours worth of movies. Then imagine a computer in your wristwatch. Or a video player attached to your reading glasses. Incredible? Not anymore thanks to research being done by people like Professor Stephen Y. Chou, an electrical engineer at Princeton University. Suddenly all those far out science fiction movies are beginning to make some sense.

The present fabrication process for making cd's is lithography using beams of light. A liquid polymer is injected against a mold with tiny bits of data-coding. These tiny bumps are cut out with light beam lithography. The problem has been that these beams cannot etch patterns smaller than their own wavelengths. Chou's process is called nanoimprint lithography and uses beams of electrons. The electron beams can cut much smaller bumps and more smoothly due to the use of semi-solid polymers. Then the mold is pressed into a softened but still-solid polymer. Another advantage with Chou's process is that the mold can be used over and over, thus creating a way to quickly mass produce the cd's. Replication with simplicity, and at a very reasonable cost is in itself incredible.

Since the bumps on these cd's are smaller, a different method than the now used laser beam is needed to read them. For those of you who still love those old phonograph records, you'll love this. The new cd's are read by an atomic "needle" only a few atoms wide. The needle is inserted into the tip of an atomic force microscope and is vibrated just above the surface. In this way it reads the tiny data bumps without actually touching the disc. The atoms in the tip and on the surface then create changes in frequency by reacting to each other. The cd is "read" by measuring these frequency changes. The technique can store 400 gigabits per square inch, or about 180 gigabits of information on a penny-size CD. Amazing stuff!

Professor Chou's credential are as impressive as his nano research. He received his B.S. degree in physics at the University of Science and Technology of China in 1978, M.S. at SUNY at Stony Brook in 1982, and Ah.D. at M.I.T. in 1986. Next, he joined Stanford University, as a Research Associate, then a Lecturer, and later an Acting Assistant Professor. In 1989, he joined the University of Minnesota as an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering; and he became an Associate Professor in 1992 and a Professor in 1994. He came to Princeton in 1997. In the past 15 years, his research has been in developing new nanotechnology and in exploring innovative nanoscale electronic, optoelectronic, and magnetic devices. He has served as a committee member on numerous international conferences and has received a number of Awards for his research. This biography can be found, along with further reading about his research, on the internet at http://www.ee.princeton.edu/%7Echouweb/.

The applications for this technology are almost endless. And many top name companies have noticed and seem to agree. The sponsors for Chou's research include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Inlet, Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC),Tektronix and a host of government agencies. No doubt they recognize what this research can mean to the growth of their companies and their profit margins. And if they believe it is worth a large investment then individual investors should be thinking the same way. It may be a bit of a wait on the return but oh what a return when it happens. There is another sidelight to the applications that this technology will produce. The need to create and invent ways to work with the advances. As in Chou's research on the nano cd, which gave him the need to invent a "needle" to read his new cd. Companies are already looking into a way to reduce the size of the microscope to match the scale of the new cd. And this new tiny sized atomic microscope has a vast future in other uses. Invention breeding invention is what has made scientific advances tumble forward at an incredible rate. You can even say it is the root of all growth in the world of technology today.

Our existing manufacturing methods rely on moving atoms in vast groups, similar to "building a Lego house while wearing boxing gloves". In the future we will be able to literally create anything we want, any way we want, easily and at a very small expense. The idea of manipulating and positioning individual atoms and molecules is an astounding thought. But this research is in the here and now. And it will put us in the perfect place to revolutionize computer devices and create a new breed of many smaller, more functional, cleaner, and stronger products over the next 15 years and beyond. And when we are ready, Chou expects his nano-cd's will alter the way we interact with computers. "I think eventually everything is going to be very small; probably even the computer can fit inside a wristwatch," says Chou. "And we would not need to type into it--we would just need to speak to the computer to input all the information." No more carting that 8 pound computer laptop through the airport. Amazing stuff!