When chipmakers slim down their silicon, they need finer and finer tools to organise all that circuitry. With MIT's latest self-assembling chips, the detail work is handled by molecular strands that, freakishly, just know where to go.
Self-assembling chips aren't new, but up till now, people have used electron-beam rays to carve grooves where molecules get cosy. Electron-beam guns are damn expensive and damn slow. This breakthrough - which relies more than ever on molecules doing their own thing - will lead to a cheaper way to make the smallest physically possible microchips, and probably increase hard drive capacity and current chip performance in the meantime.
The news, published this week by MIT researchers Caroline Ross and Karl Berggren, is that they can now use an electron gun just to make "hitchin' posts" for the molecules to identify then wrap around. The trick? Using two separate kinds of molecule strands - described by Ross as spaghetti and tagliatelle, and by Berggren as DeNiro and Grodin in Midnight Run - that keep each other in line. Once the molecules are in place, a plasma charge dissolves one set, and turns the other set into glass crucial to processing. Berggren and Ross have shown they can fake a chip; their next step is to make a pattern that actually functions as a genuine circuit.
We've reached the limits of my understanding, but not my appreciation. This stuff will one day be used for making ever smaller microprocessors, but in the meantime can be used to streamline current chipmaking methods, and also to pack hard drive data in tighter. I'm relieved to hear there's still a need for someone to say where the posts go, but let's face it, with self-assembling chips like these, who needs ham-handed humans anyway? Queue the excitement - and paranoia. [MIT]