Cellphones, iPods and other electronics keep getting smaller, because computing chips keep getting smaller. But that can't go on forever. Not the way the way chips are made today.
Today, a powerful beam of light is projected through a photograph of the circuit. It's like a slide show. That image is etched onto the surface of a piece of silicon. That's why they call it Silicon Valley. But there's trouble in the valley, because today we're nearing the limit to how small you can focus a beam of light.
That problem appears to have been overcome by some researchers in a University of California lab in Berkeley. Even though they believed what they built would work, it surprised even them the first time.
"We got excited," says Liang Pan, a member of the team. "We did believe it definitely will work, but it still was very exciting to see it for the first time."
Liang Pan, along with David Bogy and Xiang Zhang did something quite clever. They combined nanotechnology with hard disk drive technology. Your computer writes information to spinning disks, using a tiny magnetic arm.
The UC team modified that technique so that the arm draws tiny circuits -- instead of data -- right onto silicon. The secret is nanotechnology at the tip of the arm. Nanoshapes like these rings form the world's smallest lens. It's quantum physics lens made of electrons. It focuses ultraviolet light into any shape you want, at incredibly small sizes.
And it's cheaper. Today's photolithography machines cost $20 million, and each slide or mask, is a million dollar baby.
"Yeah," Pan points out, "one slide is roughly a million dollars. But the thing is, since they are consumable items, eventually half the cost of a microchip comes from the cost of the photolithography tools and the masks."
The new system promises chips that are 10 times smaller than what is possible today and cost 10 times less. Pan believes the new technique will be ready for prime time in 2-4 years -- just about the time current chip making techniques hit a wall.