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IBM scientists are using DNA origami to build tiny circuit boards; in this image, low concentrations of triangular DNA origami are binding to wide lines on a lithographically patterned surface.Credit: IBM

Scientists at IBM Research and the California Institute of Technology have announced a scientific advancement that could be a major breakthrough in enabling the semiconductor industry to pack more power and speed into tiny computer chips, while making them more energy efficient and less expensive to manufacture. They made an advancement in combining lithographic patterning with self assembly – a method to arrange DNA origami structures on surfaces compatible with today’s semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Today, the semiconductor industry is faced with the challenges of developing lithographic technology for feature sizes smaller than 22 nm and exploring new classes of transistors that employ carbon nanotubes or silicon nanowires. IBM’s approach of using DNA molecules as scaffolding  -- where millions of carbon nanotubes could be deposited and self-assembled into precise patterns by sticking to the DNA molecules – may provide a way to reach sub-22 nm lithography. The utility of this approach lies in the fact that the positioned DNA nanostructures can serve as scaffolds, or miniature circuit boards, for the precise assembly of components – such as carbon nanotubes, nanowires and nanoparticles – at dimensions significantly smaller than possible with conventional semiconductor fabrication techniques. This opens up the possibility of creating functional devices that can be integrated into larger structures, as well as enabling studies of arrays of nanostructures with known coordinates.
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Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), a university-research consortium for semiconductors and related technologies, has teamed with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to announce funding of $2 million in new supplemental grants for nanoelectronics research. Researchers at six major NSF centers inside leading U.S. universities will contribute to the goal of finding a replacement for the transistor - the foundational building block of computing technology for decades - and discovering a new digital switching mechanism using nanoelectronics innovation. In electronics, a transistor is a semiconductor device commonly used to amplify or switch electronic signals. A transistor is made of a solid piece of a semiconductor material, with at least three terminals for connection to an external circuit. A voltage or current applied to one pair of the transistor's terminals changes the current flowing through another pair of terminals. Until recently, manufacturers were able to double the number of transistors on a chip at half the power for each transistor by shrinking them smaller and smaller in each new generation of semiconductor technology. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue decreasing the power needed to turn the device off and on, making it difficult to continue the pace of product innovation from scaling alone.
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Hoping to leave today's silicon solar cells behind, the Palo Alto company Nanosolar is creating paper-thin solar panels harnessing nanotechnology, a product that could revolutionize solar power. View the video below!

QUEST on KQED Public Media.

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