This week, IBM announced plans to build the world’s largest “noise free” nanoelectronic fabrication facilities in Switzerland. By shielding equipment from external electromagnetic, thermal, and seismic noise, the new facilities should help advance research in a wide range of fields, such as spintronics, carbon-based devices, and nanophotonics, says IBM.
As electronics research shifts to ever smaller scales, a stable laboratory environment becomes increasingly important, says Matthias Kaiserswerth, director of the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory. If you’re trying to design a new transistor by manipulating individual electrons moving through a carbon nanotube, any disturbance–a truck rumbling past or a nearby vacuum cleaner–can disrupt your experiment and leave you with irreproducible results.
“What we’re trying to get to is something that is truly noise free, shielding against all these influences,” says Kaiserswerth. Eventually, Kaiserswerth says, these kinds of facilities will become for nanoelectronics what clean rooms are for conventional silicon electronics.
Henry Smith, codirector of MIT’s Nanostructures Laboratory, is not so sure. “There is no firm evidence that such facilities are needed,” he says. “Active isolation of vibration is a better solution and at much lower cost.”
But Xiang Zhang, director of the Nano-Scale Science and Engineering Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says that it’s precisely IBM’s willingness to take risks with its new facility that will create excitement in the nanotech community. “This is a good sign,” he says.
The new labs are part of a $90 million, 65,000-square-foot facility being built by IBM in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, also in Zurich. One-third of the $90 million will go toward building 10,000 square feet of clean-room facilities and 2,000 square feet of noise-free labs. Although nanotech labs elsewhere are shielded in various ways, says Kaiserswerth, “this 200 square meters will be unique. These noise-free labs will give us a competitive edge so we can move forward faster.”
“IBM is in the business of making computer chips,” says Kaiserswerth. “But we have been struggling in the last few years to meet Moore’s Law in terms of doubling the number of transistors on a chip and doubling the clock rate.” Techniques that the industry has traditionally used to increase circuit density are beginning to bump up against silicon’s fundamental physical limits. So many companies and research centers are trying to develop novel ways to store information and perform computations.