RealTime IT News

HP Plots Its Nano Course

For the first time in its history, HP is looking at nanotechnology to solve its future computing needs.

After 40-years of relying on silicon and Moore's Law to define its computers and printers, the company has now fully embarked on a sub-micron path it says will carry it through the next 40 or so years.

"We believe we have a practical, comprehensive strategy for moving computing beyond silicon to the world of molecular-scale electronics," Stan Williams, HP Senior Fellow and director, Quantum Science Research (QSR) at HP Labs, said in a statement.

HP said it is taking a three-pronged approach, with the overall vision based on its possible replacement for transistors: crossbar architecture. The other two prongs include research into the quantum effects that dominate the nanometer scale as well as finding ways to make nanoelectronics components on a budget with its fabrication partners.

"Computers of tomorrow could be quite different from what they are today," Williams said. "When you can make a computing appliance so tiny that it could fit across the width of a hair, you could enable many, many different things to become 'smart.' Computing could become as ubiquitous as electricity -- it's just there, making things work."

The sub-micron space has been a hotbed of activity in the semiconductor sector both in manufacturing as well as research and development. HP will now directly compete on a new level with IT giants like IBM, Intel, Texas Instruments, and Fujitsu.

The need for nanotechnology is based on the excessive heat production and performance limitations of current silicon. Executives at the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) suggest that the standard CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) building block will reach its limit in 15 years. After that, computer processors and their related transistors will need new materials and devices.

Williams said that HP Labs has discussed its nano ideas separately before, especially the crossbar architecture, which the company claims is potentially easier and less expensive to manufacture than conventional silicon technology.

In crossbar architecture, one set of parallel nanowires runs approximately perpendicular to another set, sandwiching a thin layer of an electrically switchable material. Every intersection of wires can then form an electrical switch, which could be programmed to configure the crossbar to perform various functions, such as store a bit or perform a logic operation.

"At the nano level, quantum mechanics takes over from classical physics -- electrons behave more like waves than particles. We are studying how we can use quantum properties to enable new functions in a circuit," he said. Theoretical physicists working in QSR have contributed articles on quantum effects to the special edition.

To that end, QSR researchers are examining the properties of various metals for wires and materials for switches that could be used in fabrication at the nano level. They are also proposing ways in which the tiny devices could be linked to conventional microelectronics.

The researchers are also looking at a variety of fabrication processes, from nano-imprint lithography -- a kind of production process akin to a traditional printing press -- to chemical self-assembly by growing silicon nanowires between electrodes. One paper in the publication describes how silicon nanowires are especially useful as sensors to detect specific DNA molecules.

The details of HP's strategy were also published in a special nanotechnology edition of Applied Physics A, a European journal of applied physics.

"Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before nanoscale devices become reality, and no one organization will ever be able to do it alone," Williams said. "That's why we're publishing in the scientific literature and holding our own symposium. All of us in the scientific and technical community have much to learn from one another."