Washington, August 15 : Combining the lithography techniques traditionally used to produce patterns for small electronic devices and novel self-assembling materials called block copolymers may help reduce the time and cost of manufacturing, say researchers.
Paul Nealey, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC), says that this approach may pave the way to smaller electronic devices, and higher-capacity hard drives.
"In the past 20 to 30 years, researchers have been able to shrink the size of devices and the size of the patterns that you need to make those devices, following the use of the same types of lithographic materials, tools and strategies, only getting better and better at it," he says.
The researcher insists that this approach is commercially viable as well as capable of meeting the demanding quality-control standards of the industry.
Working in collaboration with experts from Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, Nealey's team tested a promising new twist on the traditional methods.
Writing about the new approach in the journal Science, the researchers described it as a a patterning technology that may revolutionize the field of microelectronics.
When added to a lithographically patterned surface, the copolymers' long molecular chains spontaneously assemble into the designated arrangements.
"There's information encoded in the molecules that results in getting certain size and spacing of features with certain desirable properties. Thermodynamic driving forces make the structures more uniform in size and higher density than you can obtain with the traditional materials," Nealey said.
The block copolymers pattern the resulting array down to the molecular level, offering a precision unattainable by traditional lithography-based methods alone and even correcting irregularities in the underlying chemical pattern.
Such nanoscale control also help create higher-resolution arrays capable of holding more information than those produced these days.
Besides that, the self-assembling block copolymers only need one-fourth as much patterning information as traditional materials to form the desired molecular architecture, making the process more efficient, Nealey says.
"If you only have to pattern every fourth spot, you can write those patterns at a fraction of the time and expense," he says.
Richard New, director of research at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, said: "This research addresses one of the most significant challenges to delivering patterned media - the mass production of patterned disks in high volume, at a reasonable cost."
He added: "The large potential gains in density offered by patterned media make it one of the most promising new technologies on the horizon for future hard disk drives."
The researchers have revealed that the method, in its current form, is very well-suited for designing hard drives and other data-storage devices.
Further advances may make it useful for designing more complex patterns like microchips, they say.
"These results have profound implications for advancing the performance and capabilities of lithographic materials and processes beyond current limits," Nealey says.