Members Make Things Smaller, Cheaper, Stickier

Their work results incredibly small computer chips, new adhesive material, and more

7 May 2008

Several IEEE members have helped develop incredibly small computer chips, inexpensive genetic testing, and new adhesive material. Their projects were featured in recent Science Daily news stories.

NANOTUBES RIVAL COPPER WIRES Chipmakers have been looking for thinner wiring as they pack more and more devices onto each chip. A trio of IEEE members has achieved a record of sorts by creating the first silicon chip wired with nanotubes that operates at speeds comparable to chips already on the market. Their work was published on 16 February.

Senior Member Bipul Paul of Toshiba America Research, in San Jose, Calif., and Member Shinichi Yasuda of Toshiba’s Advanced Semiconductor Device Engineering Laboratory, in Kawasaki, Japan, along with Student Member Gael Close from Stanford University, are working to find out whether the small nanotubes can reliably replace traditional copper wires.

The article was based on the their paper, “A 1-Gigahertz Integrated Circuit With Carbon Nanotube Interconnects and Silicon Transistors,” which appeared on 13 February in the journal Nano Letters.

Carbon nanotubes boast a much smaller electrical resistance than copper nanowires, and are thought to be better suited for interconnect applications. The team has shown that nanotubes not only can connect transistors at high speeds, but they also “can work in circuits that use materials, designs, and manufacturing processes compatible with those that chipmakers use today,” says Close, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Stanford and the paper’s lead author, in Science Daily.

When the team members designed its chip, they purposely left one wire of some 256 oscillators on the chip unconnected. Following manufacture, researchers at the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility completed the missing connections with nanotubes. Only 19 out of 256 oscillators were successfully connected, but they ran at speeds of more than 800 megahertz, or about 100 MHz faster than the processor in an iPhone.

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GENETIC TESTING IEEE Member Christopher Backhouse, an electrical and computer engineering professor, and other researchers from the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, developed a genetic testing unit about the size of a shoebox. Their work was reported on 29 January.

Genetic testing has been used sparingly because conducting a single test costs thousands of dollars, and the results can take weeks to process. However, researchers at the university developed a reusable microchip-based system for US $1000, and it delivers results in about an hour.

Since the article was published, the researchers have developed an even smaller and cheaper version of the unit. It takes just $100 to build and only a few minutes to process test results.

The heart of the unit is an IC chip that analyzes small samples of genetic material. It can use blood, hair, skin, amniotic fluid, or other tissue to test for a plethora of diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s. It can even test patients for genetic predisposition to an illness so that a doctor can suggest preventative care. Additionally, it can be used to test drinking water for the presence of E. coli and other harmful bacteria.

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GECKO TAPE Three IEEE members are part of a group developing an adhesive based on the molecular structure that allows geckos to crawl up vertical walls and across ceilings. Their invention was featured in Science Daily on 30 January.

Ron Fearing, electrical engineering and computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, originally teamed up in 2000 with Thomas Kenny, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford University, to study Van der Waals forces, which come into play when millions of tiny hairs on a gecko’s feet come in contact with a wall, allowing the animal to attach itself to the surface.

Fearing and Student Member Bryan Schubert, an EECS graduate student at Berkeley, applied 42 million hard plastic microfibers that mimic gecko hair onto a square centimeter of material. Two square centimeters of the synthetic adhesive could hold up to 400 grams, and it also easily sticks and un-sticks to surfaces. “When the load is removed, the microfibers disengage. This allows for controlled attachment and detachment,” Fearing explains in Science Daily.

Other advantages to Berkeley’s adhesive are that the hard polymers are not sticky to the touch, and they are less prone than softer plastic to collect dirt after repeated use.

Although the possibility of robotic or human wall crawling probably is still far off, the adhesive could be ideal for bandages that adhere to skin but do not tear it when removed.

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IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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