Guest blogger: IBM scientists reinvent the record player needle?

Well, not exactly - let me explain.

Do you remember the last time you used a record player? For those readers born in the age of CDs and MP3s let me explain. Records have tiny grooves on them with peaks and valley's that are "read" by a tiny needle, which are then projected through a speaker for your listening pleasure. Often though, the needles wear out and eventually break, sometimes scratching your favorite Frank Sinatra or Beatles record beyond repair causing much heartburn.

I am taking you on this little tour down memory lane because a similar challenge is faced when scientists explore at the nano-scale using scanning probe-based techniques, which also employ a "needle" or tip as we call it. And while it's been a challenge for quite some time, IBM scientists in Zurich have effectively created a "needle" that will effectively never wear out, thus improving our ability to develop the next generation of more powerful computer chips with ultra-small features, that could extend their capabilities, quality and precision beyond the projected limits of current production and characterization tools. Let me explain.

Scanning probe-based techniques utilize tiny, nanometer-sharp tips borrowed from atomic force microscopy to characterize or manipulate nanostructures and devices by scanning or rather sliding in very close proximity over the surface - similar to the example of the way a needle plays records, except they never touch. Today, these techniques represent the scientists’ “eyes”, “ears”, “nose”, and “hands” as they explore the smallest objects known to mankind .

In the semiconductor industry, these techniques due to their atomic resolution and manipulation capabilities, have become increasingly attractive for next generation chips with ultra-small feature sizes. While small by most standards, today's 40 nm transistors can still shrink further, but it becomes increasingly challenging, due to the mechanical wear on the tips and due to the costs of the current tools and methods to process the chips out of silicon wafers, which approach their physical limitations.

To solve this challenge we have applied an AC voltage between the cantilever—similar to the arm of a record player with a needle—and the sample surface. The cantilever bends and the tip vibrates with an almost imperceptible estimated amplitude of one nanometer. Though vanishingly small, it is this vibration that greatly reduces friction and “effectively” eliminates tip wear under experimental conditions.

With the wear problem tackled, researchers at IBM Research – Zurich are now investigating a number of possible applications of scanning probe-based technologies including nanofabrication, nanolithography and high-speed metrology.

Now if I could just get those original records of yesterday fixed I could sleep better again.

Mark Lantz
IBM Research - Zurich