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IBM demonstrates nanometre scale 3D printing

28 April 2014



IBM has demonstrated a technology that could lead to transistors being made from graphene -- by creating the smallest magazine cover in the world.

IBM used nanometre-scale 3D printing or nanomilling to create the cover for National Geographic Kids. The cover won National Geographic its ninth Guinness World Record.

IBM's advances in very small-scale 3D printing can be used for the the prototyping and manufacture of new transistor devices, including tunnelling field-effect transistors -- making possible more energy-efficient and faster electronics for anything from cloud data centres to smartphones. By the end of the year, IBM hopes to begin exploring the use of this technology in prototype transistor designs made of graphene like materials.

‘To create more energy-efficient clouds and crunch big data faster, we need a new generation of technologies including novel transistors. But before we can put these future technologies into mass production, we need new techniques for prototyping below 30 nanometres,’ said Dr Armin Knoll, a physicist at IBM Research. ‘With our novel technique, we can achieve very a high resolution at 10 nanometres at greatly reduced cost and complexity. In particular, by controlling the amount of material evaporated, we can also produce 3D relief patterns at the unprecedented accuracy of merely one nanometre in a vertical direction. Now it’s up to the imagination of scientists and engineers to apply this technique to real-world challenges.’

This technology has other applications, including nano-sized security tags to prevent the forgery of documents such as passports and works of art and in the emerging field of quantum computing.

Scientists at IBM invented a tiny ‘chisel’ with a heatable silicon tip 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil point. Using this nano-sized tip, which creates patterns and structures on a microscopic scale, it took scientists just 10 minutes to etch the magazine cover onto a polymer. The resulting magazine cover measures 11×14 micrometres.

The tip is attached to a bendable cantilever that scans the surface of the substrate and, by applying heat and force, it can remove material based on predefined patterns, thus operating like a ‘nanomilling’ machine with ultrahigh precision. Complex 3D structures can be created -- in a manner analogous to the results from a 3D printer -- by removing more material with nanometre precision by modulating the force or by readdressing individual spots.

IBM has licensed the technology to a startup based in Switzerland called SwissLitho, which is bringing the technology to market under the name NanoFrazor. The firm has already shipped its first NanoFrazor to McGill University’s Nanotools Microfab in Canada. To celebrate the tool’s arrival, the university created a nano-sized map of Canada measuring 30 micrometres or 0.030 millimetres wide.

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