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Nanoscale Crystals May Be The Future of Silicon 99

Wire Tap writes: "With all the talk about how silicon is nearing its physical limits in computer systems, and other data processing applications, I found this article quite interesting. "[Brian] Korgel and chemical engineering professor Keith Johnston have found a method to make stable microscopic nanocrystals out of silicon that can emit light. And by toying with the size of the silicon nanostructures, they can change the color of the light that shines through. It can make essentially faster memory and generate less heat and radiate less power.""
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Nanoscale Crystals May Be The Future of Silicon

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Korgel and chemical engineering professor Keith Johnston have found a method to make stable microscopic nanocrystals out of silicon that can emit light.

  • by caesar-auf-nihil ( 513828 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @11:21AM (#2115237)
    Obviously, the semiconductor industry is especially interested in this are. IBM has done some work on "streching" the silicon domains in semiconductor devices to get them to behave differently. By doing this, they can get around some of the size limits that chip/device fabrication is currently running up against. I wish I could find the article I saw on this, but I think it was about a month ago.. What strikes me as really neat about this technology is the possibility for optical computing, rather than electron transport through semiconductors. With chemical and nanoscale design applied together, one could perhaps get different materials to emit different wavelenghts of light, opening up not just optical storage applications, but optical CPUs, memory, etc. I want to say that researchers have found some silicon/germanium crystals that do just this, based on the ratio of silicon to germanium. I think I read it in Science or Applied Physics Letters, but again, I'm not completely sure where I read this, but I know I've seen it somewhere. As a nitpicking aside, there is no such thing as microscopic nanocrystals. Nanocrystals are called such because one or more of their dimensions are on the nanoscale. For nanocrystalline silicon, all of its dimensions are nanoscale, and not microscale.
  • For some reason, rock candy comes to mind.
  • OK, not to sound like a Troll, but gimme a break. Quit posting this garbage about nanoscale technology. Crystals aren't even REMOTELY the right way to go. I'm doing work at Rice in collaboration with Yale and a few other major universities. Whoever keeps posting this stuff needs to be informed.
  • Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) are engaged in talks to either launch a start-up company or license the use of a breakthrough in nanocrystals that may lay the foundation for a new line of super small tech products.
    So they used University money and equipment, and now there going to take the tech that was developed on the universtities dime, and start there own company? I can see it now, We developed this tech at your university, but if you want to use it, you got to pay us.
    Or maybe I'm just grumpy from my morning drive.
    • It was my impression that usually universities encourage this sort of venture. The students/researchers involved go off, get (more) venture money, but the university keeps a pretty big stake.. perhaps even holding IP rights. I believe many an engineering college has built up sizeable endowments this way.
  • People said that VLSI was too expensive at one time, and yet, here we are...

    10 years ago, a processor like the AMD Tbird or Intel P4 would've been impossible, and if it were, it'd be too cost prohibitive to make... Give it time, and the price will unfailingly come down as research gives way to better, cheaper methods. Everything is expensive until it leaves the laboratory

  • by zer0vector ( 94679 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @10:56AM (#2131586)
    Perhaps computers built with these new crystals will be fast enough to resist the onslaught of Slashdot. I wouldn't really know since I can't read the article.
  • by Kara B. ( 315771 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @10:57AM (#2131587) Homepage

    5 words:

    Light emitting silicon breast implants.

    Brings a whole new meaning the "check out the headlights on that one."

    Sacred mother of god, we're about to give you boys another reason to stare at a woman's chest while talking to her.

    • I resent that.....I'm an equal opportunity perv, I alternate the focus of my stare (occasionally even reaching I level :)). I also don't purposefully drop things and ask the lady to pick them up (thats so childish). No in the era of the mini-skirt (I love high-school) I am glad to pick up my own crap....and theirs too. Your idea of light-emitting implants is a solid one however and I encourage you to quickly patent it before some unscrupulous company comes along and steals it. I can think of several other features that might be usefull in implants: a space heater, modem jack, a movie projector, mp3 player, coin slot for purchase of beverages, etc...
    • "Rudolph... You're FIRED!"
    • Light emitting silicon breast implants.

      Wouldn't those be uncomfortable, considering how much harder silicon is than the silicone traditionally used in non-saline breast implants?

      /me pulls the tongue out of his cheek...

    • Warning: Political Incorrectness ahead
      Light emitting silicon breast implants


      This poses a marketing problem.
      At least it's not LEZBO

    • Before you ask, I already have a boyfriend and he's more of a man than you'll ever be.

      hey... that part about him being more of a man than me really hurt my feelings... I need a hug from someone... preferably someone with large headlights

  • I've been wondering when this 'new' technology would finally be released.

    According to a number of sources I won't disclose, (thank you very much), you-know-who has been using crstl mtrix technology for years in computers and, more importantly, for power storage, (enough to drive not only computers but vehicles and other gear.)

    Knowing the way this crap goes, we'll probably have to wait about 10 years for crstl mtrix technology to be 'developed' into something both useful and available to the public. And who knows to what level you-know-who will have advanced at that point.

    Ahh! The bullshit parade. "Oooh! Look at the wonderful science news! None of this has anything to do with mass manipulation & slave-nation control! The power structures of the world really DO have the best interests of the public at heart! Ah, plug me into the Discovery channel, my sweet, sweet opiate would never lie to me, would they?"

    Mind you, I still think Slashdot is really cool. Despite the idiot flamers and general naivete, this site allows for actual communication to take place. It allows for the possibility of information dissemination and comparison. And assholes like me to whisper periodically. . .

    -Fantastic Lad; Loud AND Annoying!

  • So now they'll be making screens so small we need a microscope to see them. How will you ever play an adequate game of Quake on that??
    • The screeens wouldn't necessarily be smaller, but just think of the mind-blowing monitors that could be made with this. Have some of the incandescent traffic lights in your town been replaced by LEDs? Notice how bright they are? Now imagine if you could make a monitor that bright with nanocrystals with supertunable pixels the size of, well, nanocrystals. The resolution and color gradients are mindboggling. Think 32-bit color is neat? Wait 'til you see 1024-bit color on a monitor that uses half the power of your current one. (I'm just making those numbers up, but it's very likely the actual properties could be that revolutionary.)

      Please note, though, that this has nothing to do with making faster Si-based MOSFETs (i.e. smaller transistors). If you're interested in that, look here [], here (great story) [], or here [] to see just a handful of the ideas people have. With all of these things in development, don't expect anything to overtake Si as the dominant technology for a long, long time (~10 years, maybe even). ;-)

    • So now they'll be making screens so small we need a microscope to see them. How will you ever play an adequate game of Quake on that??

      Oh that's easy to answer! Consider the mytical devices that project images directly to your retina? This comes closer if not soon hitting the mark. Then you can have completely visually immersive VR. If you thought Quake3 was good on your screen, how about actually being there?
  • just imagine the overclocking capabilites :-)
    seriously though data speed is one thing that is becoming less important but power efficency is something that we really should start to worry about. Afetr all: a 6 litre V8 can be burnt off by a snail when theres not a petrol station in site.
  • It does bring up the possibility of a screen that is the size of a paperback book with, say, 600 dots per inch. A readable e-book. Or a notebook computer with a 15 inch screen and 4096 X 4096 resolution that doesn't need a backlight. The questions that need to be answered: How much light do these emit? How many can you pack in a square cm? How much power do they draw?
    • by atrowe ( 209484 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @11:11AM (#2157634)
      This technology isn't currently suited for display applications. The cost of production is still too high so that it would be highly cost prohibitive to produce a 15 inch laptop display.

      My company (which shall remain unnamed) has been working on this technology for processing and routing applications. It isn't intended to replace LCD displays, but to replace traditional silicon processors.

      Light processors have been in the planning and development stages for years now, and once the technology is perfected, will offer lower power consumption and less heat production as opposed to the standard silicon-on-insulator microprocessors that are in use today. The light emitting properties of these chips could also be used in optical routers and fiber switching/repeating applications, however we have yet to overcome the problem of interfacing the dylithium crystal matrix with the carbon nanotube fibres used in high speed optical cable. Hopefully the new flux capacitors in development at IBM's "Deep Space Nine" research facility in Oregon will solve this problem nicely, but it looks like these advancements are still several years off.

      • On a more serious note, several years ago I heard of a promising technology where a silicon chip was put through a normal manufacturing process, then dipped in one additional solution that "polished" the traces into light-carrying troughs. Supposedly the process was able to make optical chips (at lower speeds...) from standard silicon processes.

        Anyone heard of this?
      • I never thought I would see the words "dylithium crystal matrix", "Deep Space Nine" and "Flux Capacitors" together in the same post...welcome to the 21st Century everyone, for real, this time! cheers
    • the different colours depend on them changing size, so I'm not sure how feasible this would be.. There's bound to be quite a size difference between a red screen and a blue screen, and let's face it if you're using windows e-book edition, a blue screen is going to be pretty common. ;)
  • Great, Except..... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rdslater596 ( 472943 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @11:17AM (#2135005)
    Not to be a total wanker on the parade but this is money down the drain. Why?
    1. Becuase this technology has (currently) no way of being controlled to a point of being put in circuit. To put these crystals in a chip they have to be formed basically on the chip via some lithography method. So until technology devlops a way to put these cyrstals in a specific place this is all a bunch of cool but useless. 2.
    2. "Researchers heat a mix of an organic solvent called hexane and a hydrocarbon ligand known as octanol to 450 degrees Celsius inside a titanium chamber." Yeah, this is gonna go over great in the fab community. Now we have to redesign our lithgoraphy to take place indide a titanium chamber at 450 C.
    3. Price to performace. A lot of people make claims about new technology but when it comes down to it the reason we have our current tech is becuase its cheap(Comparitively) to put 20 million tranistors on a chip. This new techonolgy is several decades behind and probably will cost A LOT more. There are a lot of techonolgies better than Si transitors but the reason we use it is beacuse in the end comapnies sell a product, not get Tenure at a university. Technology breakthroughs from universities are exteremly importatnt but when they go off claiming to revolutionize commercial industry they are only fluffing there own feathers. Wait until a real company starts inversting in it and not some sucker venture capitalist.

    • by shattered42 ( 470964 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @11:48AM (#2110217)
      You make a great few points... except they're all wrong. Allow me to prevent the flamebait mod that's coming down the pike...

      1) Five years ago we had no method of slapping transistors on a chip on the .13 micron scale. Does that mean today we can't do it and it's not commercially viable??? Somehow I think not...

      2) The "fab" community (at least the ones who aren't into a certain British rawk group) will do whatever they damn well have to in order to produce what the market wants. They'll piss upwind in January while licking a metal signpost if it'll make them millions (billions?) in profit.

      3)When is new technology every not "decades behind" current technology??? current technology is current cuz it was started a decade ago. Cost comes down over time (which is why my Apple IIGS won't sell for the thousand that was paid for it), as cheaper means of production are discovered.

      Next time consider that perhaps the tech we have today isn't the pinnacle of existance and we might (believe it or not) be able to improve on it. It's going to take cash flow, a few wrong turns, and lots of people pissing on the parade, but it will happen.
      • I totally agree, I would like to add a few more things to think about to this list.

        First, if we were to just throw our hands up in the air and say 'Damn, this costs too much!' every time we try something new we might as well still be living in caves or under rocks. Life is nothing but trial and error until we get it right, and that my friends costs money, time and creative juices. And if we cant make sacrifices then we will never advance.

        Second, the statement "When is new technology every not "decades behind" current technology??? current technology is current cuz it was started a decade ago." is very true. Do you think our technology springs from the great mystical fountain of all-knowing located in the back of Grace-Land? No, it's slowly developed over time. Hence back to the hard work and whatnot. Technology is not instant gratification.

        • Well maybe I came off too harsh in my first post. I get irritated when people claim to have breakthrough technology and all they have is breakthrough research ;). I agree that this research needs to be pursued, but my point was not to hold your breath that anything is going to come out of it and point out some reasons why. Please allow a bit of clarification: First, this technology is a LONG way off and still in its infancy. Current projects have a big advantage over this in that they already have $$ and time behind them. SO this will have to play catchup. It may very well do it and if it makes my life better than I be happy. Second, in the development some unforseen problem could junk the whole project. Now it is a good idea to develop this and try and overcome the problems that come up. Alternate solutions are always good. Never quit the project becuase of what might happen. But something always happens And yes I realize that future technology is always decades behind. What I meant to clarify is that the existing infrastructure for what is used currently is a huge inertial barrier to change. Given that Si may bottom out on us in a few years that may overcome some barriers. If this technology only provides an incremental upgrade it probably will be left on a shelf somewhere unless there is nothing else. Whether or not thats good, we may never know. For a big switch in tech you need a big improvment to over come price and difficulty (usually). Understand that I am all for research and new ideas but I guess I am tempered by all the hurdles I know new stuff has to pass to become 'mainstream.' Sometimes it kills really cool ideas, but it happens.
    • According to the article, these nanocrystals are not made using a lithography process. Lithography is used to define a pattern in a thin film. This process involves heating a mixture of materials together to form the nanocrystals, which are then harvested from the mixture, so lithography doesn't come into play at all.

      The problem is then to find some way to attach these nanocrystals to a chip to make them do something interesting. There is a lot of work being done on self-assembly of nanocrystals, and this is one application where that knowledge could really pay off.

  • Nanoscale crystals for really small new age healers.
  • by pausz ( 218832 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @11:56AM (#2135624)

    This process doesn't seem new to me, because it looks surprisingly like the one a French group has invented a few years back. (Do a search for Fievet, and Polyol process). I think Fievet even has some patents on the synthesis procedure.

    There are actually many physical methods to make nanocrystals of inorganic materials: ball milling, synthesis in a cavitation field, spray pyrolysis. There are also many other (wet) chemical techniques, of which this is one: water/oil microemulsions, polymer solutions.

    The problem with the physical methods is the particle agglomeration, as was indicated in the article. However, the chemical synthesis methods also have problems, since you're stuck with a templating agent that surrounds your nanocrystals. This may be hindering any practical use of the nanocrystals... But you can't burn off the templating agent, because then the particles will agglomerate again.

  • Wouldn't using optic crystals lead to the corresponding problem of needing big-ass photoreceptor/converters? Seems like it would just be a big waste for a processor.
  • For years, we kept hearing about gallium arsenide being the semiconductor of the future but seeing precious few devices that use it extensively (it's great for microwave transistors and you all have it in your cell phones, but who'se seen a GaAs microprocessor?). This led to the standing joke in the condensed-matter physics community that "Gallium arsenide is the material of the future and always will be."

    My guess is that the same is true of nanocrystals.

    • Actually, Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) semiconductors AND CPUs have been made - the older Cray Supercomputers at the NSA are nothing but GaAs computer architechure. The biggest problem with these devices was the heat output. To cool these systems, Cray had to put a recirculating ethylene glycol system into the computer, which ran the ethylene glycol OVER the computer chips and circuit boards to cool them. Since ethylene glycol is an electrical insulator there was no worry about short circuit with this system, provided it was kept absolutely dry. Filters were put into the recirculating unit to ensure dryness. It was such a neat visual effect, that Cray put in windows on the side of the casing so you could see the liquid cascade over the chips and boards and fall over the edge like a waterfall.
    • I believe Vitesse Semiconductor company makes GaAs chips, almost exclusively...and pretty cool chips at that. OC-192 fabric and hopfully the full chipset to go along with it.

      They do pretty well. I've been to their fab in Colorado Springs...pretty neat. But i really wouldn't want to work there...too unsettling to be working in a building that is storing thousands of gallons of acid.

      - and all the workers say, "I'm melting"
  • by anshil ( 302405 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2001 @12:12PM (#2139033) Homepage
    When talking about light memories and light computers etc. we must face the fact that one basic light component is missing:

    The Light Transistor

    We can store light (the light flipflop), we can transport light effictivly, overlay it and all that, but we've no light controlled light amplifier.

    Currently we've to take the way around through electricity. Receive the light, transform it to an electrical signal, amplify the signal electrically and retransform the signal to light. This way we loose all the benefits light would have.

    Until we find a way to amplify light, directly controlled by light there will be no light computers, and light memories will stay in labratory only.

    If one day someone would discover in example some crystal that if shined upon from the side, will change it's up/down transperncy then nothing will stop the light computer, without that all other light components are for funny experiments only.
    • Many people have investigated ways to incorporate or directly synthesise nanocrystals inside zeolites. Zeolites are large, open aluminosilicate structures that may act as a good framework for this. They contain cages that can control the size of the nanocrystals. Also, the cages are at fixed distance, and connected by pores (tunnels). The good thing is that you can make a wide variety of zeolites that have different geometries.

      There was a very big interest in putting Cadmium sulfide inside zeolites. But it's not all that simple to get the crystals in place, and plugging the holes with sulfur is a big problem. Also, IF this works, no one knows how to incorporate these devices into something useful.

    • Isn't that exactly what a laser is? After all, laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

      Granted, that doesn't necessarily help us put it on a chip, but that doesn't mean we won't find a way. (Also, I don't know how well we can control the output via the input. That may also limit its abilities.)

    • by cr0sh ( 43134 )
      but we've no light controlled light amplifier

      Of course we do! It is called a L.A.S.E.R.

      L)ight A)mplification (by) S)timulated E)mission (of) R)adiation

      We have LASERs that are "pumped" (ie, stimulated) via other LASERs. Indeed, a simple ruby rod laser uses a light source (the flash tube) to pump the ruby rod into lasing.

      Granted, none of these devices are the size for an optical computer - but they aren't vaporware, either...
  • This link [] from July 24th on the same site is actually a good description of some further applications of nanoscale crystals, ranging from lasing to solar cells to bone implants.
  • saying "Imagine a Beowulf cluster of these..." I think I will scream.

    On the other hand, if properly configured....

  • I don't see how millions of little Billy Crystals can help make my computer any faster... funnier maybe, but not faster.
  • somewhat old hat (Score:2, Interesting)

    I don't think this work is all that new. People have been producing nanocrystals for 10 years or so (check out work by Alivisatos, Bawendi, others). The trick is to get the size distribution narrow, and then to get them into something that's more processible, like a semiconducting polymer, then you can follow simpler fabrication techniques to place them on circuit (and not have perform lithography in a titanium chamber at 450 degrees). It's true that these sorts of silicon nanocrystals would be better suited to biomedical applications, as the goodnanocrystals out there are made of toxic chemicals like CdS and CdSe, hence the line, "Putting cadmium into people doesn't sound so great,". But the article doesn't say anything about size distribution, or whether they've made electroluminescent structures, or just gotten photoluminescence. I just think it should be taken with a grain of salt.
  • This is awsome. I will take one Quantum computer please... hehe
  • Let me preface this first by saying I haven't looked at the process itself (simply telling you heat x and y up to 450 degrees Celsius say jack about the PROCESS or CONTROL systems they plan to use), but here's the problems I see with it.

    Alright. From a chemical engineering standpoint, this is going to be really tough. When you design a chemical plant, you can figure out process streams or simulate the process using programs such as Hysys. Great. But you can be rest assured that those conditions will last all of two minutes out of the year. If you are lucky.

    Now, in this case, they are using a batch process (as opposed to a steady state (continuous) or semi-batch process). This helps in that the environment variables (i.e. Q, pressure, temp, cheese to mayonaise ratios, etc.) can be fixed easier. However, I would like to see how they are planning on keeping the variance between batches to a minimum, and do it effectively and efficiently (more stress put on effectively and efficiently).

    This, in turn, is dependent on exactly how close they need to get to the previous batch to be effective. For example, if they have to be .1 standard deviations in order to get a good product, then, well, congrats on the idea, but until you can find a way to produce it, it does no one any good. This, by the way, is why you have lot numbers on paint, carpet, etc.; there is always some variance.

    Alright. I'll get off my soapbox now.

  • Someone should do a research project to see the average amount of time that passes between when a new technology is mentioned on /. and when a product actually comes out. I expect that /. is pretty far ahead of the curve. I'm guessing somewhere in the 5 year range.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Two words: optical processing Having the ability to control the wavelength of light that passes through leads to a virtual unlimited array of data representation. No limiting electrical states, you could process data based on light wavelength and with a virtually unlimited value of wavelengths to choose from, the processing power of a chip based on those crystals would be insane.
  • Korgel and Johnston are also exploring ways that nanocrystals can be used to create a new generation of computer and television screens with the full rainbow of natural colors and possibly come up with new biomedical techniques. That would rule. My understanding is that blue dyes in LCD's are a big problem, way shorter life span than the reds and greens. This sounds like it could be used to solve this problem, and bring the possibility of a nice 60" LCD into my future. :)

    • I was under the impression that the blue dye in LCD's only had a shorter lifespan on Windows machines, due to thier, ahem, constant use... *cough* BSOD *cough* :)

    • Why stop there? Imagine a bucket of "display paint" that you could apply to an entire room (walls and ceiling), and then connect to some kind of output device that would let you configure the output parameters.
      • Why stop at "display paint"? Imagine a solution that you could inject directly into your eyeballs to provide three-dimensional displays or overlays at arbitrary resolutions.

        Better yet, could these nanocrystals be fashioned into a powder that you could snort up your nose? This could even let you experience colors outside the normal human visual spectrum!

  • Often when I read about an amazing new substance that's been developed on nanotech scale, I wonder what these things will look like on a macro-scale. If they use these new silicon nanocrystals to make an awesome new display, will it have some other cool properties? For example, could they be made into a thin, flexible display? Or maybe those stupid cellophane-roll displays they had in Red Planet (ugh)?
    • The above link leads to a company that has been working with creating nanoscale materials in industrial quantities. I read an artical about their company years ago that went on to describe how their process would revolutionize engineering grade materials. Ordinary metals and materials made with nanoscale granularity had substantialy different physical properties than their microscale counterparts. For instance, copper forged with nanoscale granularity was as strong as steel, and some ceramics were flexible enough to be molded.

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