Carbon nanotubes are tiny wires that can conduct digital computer signals at five times or ten times the speed of traditional silicon chips. They have been around since the 1990s, but researchers have had a tough time getting them to behave. When they try to line these wires together in a useful grid as part of a computer design, they have a tendency to behave like wet spaghetti noodles.
But IBM is announcing today that it has taken the first real steps toward commercial fabrication of carbon nanotubes on top of a silicon chip. IBM has made transistors — the basic components of electronic computing — from nanometer-sized tubes of carbon and put 10,000 of them on top of a silicon chip using mainstream manufacturing processes.
“It’s like trying to line up spaghetti, and doing it where the lines are just six nanometers apart,” said Supratik Guha, director of physical sciences at IBM Research and a spokesman for the team that did the work, in an interview with VentureBeat. “The thickness is just one nanometer,” where a nanometer is a billionth of a meter.
That’s really, really, really, small. A human hair is 100 microns thick. So a hair is maybe 100,000 nanometers thick. For the first time since research began in the 1990s, IBM has succeeded in placing the carbon nanotubes with near-perfect accuracy on the surface of a silicon chip in order to make electronic circuits.
Guha said that the accomplishment is big one, though there are several obstacles that still stand in the way of mass production.