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The Boston Globe
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff
Posted on May 9, 2006

IBM Corp. scientist Thomas Theis thinks desktop computers are too big and use too much energy. That goes for your digital camera and your portable music player and everything else with a silicon chip inside.

But Theis thinks he can solve the problem with carbon transistors just a couple of atoms thick and amoeba-sized optical chips that make light move in slow motion. Theis specializes in creating such super-small devices, and there are about 3,000 more scientists and engineers like him in Boston this week for Nanotech 2006, the world’s largest nanotechnology trade show.

In the world of nanotechnology, anything bigger than 100 nanometers about one-thousandth as wide as a human hair is too big. Physicists and chemists have found that ordinary materials such as carbon develop powerful capabilities when they’re cut down to this size.

Since the 1970s, scientists have tried to put these capabilities to practical use. Now, decades of research are beginning to pay off. Drug companies, for instance, are using nano-engineered compounds, because the tiny particles interact more efficiently with the patient’s body. Nanosize polymers are added to fabrics to fend off stains.

The digital electronics industry was doing nanotech before it was cool. Since the invention of the computer chip in the 1970s, companies such as Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have been cramming ever-tinier circuits onto pieces of silicon. Intel today can make chips that are just 65 nanometers wide; in 1971, they were thousands of times bigger.

“By and large, making devices smaller tends to make them faster,” Theis said. In addition, “you can make a lot more of them at the same time.” That’s why a microprocessor that costs billions to develop can sell for $100 or less.

But because the features on today’s chips are so tiny, it’s becoming harder to design and test them. “There’s very few ways for the semiconductor industry to do any imaging of their devices,” said Boston University physics professor Bennett Goldberg. He and his colleagues are working on technology to make it easier to see the nanostructures on a chip.

One problem facing chip makers is that silicon starts behaving inefficiently as circuits get smaller. Electrons can leak through it, causing wasted energy and excess heat. Intel is trying to overhaul its processor designs to cope with the problem.

Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, thinks graphite nanotubes could provide a solution. “Think of a sheet, one atom thick, of graphite,” said Theis. “If you curl it up so the thickness is about one-and-a-half nanometers, that’s a carbon nanotube.” Putting a twist in these tubes makes them work like the circuits on a silicon chip. But Theis said carbon nanotube semiconductors will need far less electricity to enable microprocessors hundreds of times faster than today’s chips.

Another of Theis’s nanotech experiments made headlines last year. A team of IBM researchers created a nano-engineered material that slows light to 1/300th of its normal speed. This matters because today’s Internet and telephone services rely on laser light pulses sent over optical fibers, which must be translated into electrons before being routed to their destinations. A chip that slows down light could be the first step in building routers and switches that can work directly with light itself.

“What’s really cool,” said Theis, “is this whole thing is the size of a protozoan.”

Both Goldberg and Theis say these nano-based devices are 10 to 15 years away. But that hasn’t dampened the excitement over nanotechnology research. Dozens of companies from around the world have come to Nanotech 2006 to display their wares. And the Bush administration is banking on a big payoff from the science of small things. Richard Russell, associate director at the Office of Science Technology Policy at the White House, told attendees that the Bush Administration has budgeted $1.2 billion for nanotech research for fiscal 2007.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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