“This advance has a good chance of transitioning scanning-probe lithography from academic [use] to being an important production and prototyping tool broadly used across the semiconductor and biotechnology industries,” says Joseph DeSimone, professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One likely application for the lithography technique is the production of small numbers of specialty computer chips, says DeSimone. There is increasing demand for small batches of chips for testing new circuit designs, as well as for specialized chips for niche applications, particularly in the military. Making a new chip requires making a new mask that’s the equivalent of a photographic negative used to pattern the circuits onto a wafer. “There is a huge unmet need to make chips using maskless approaches,” says DeSimone.
In the short run, Mirkin says, cell biologists will likely find applications for the technique in their labs. The technique could help them understand the way nanoscale cellular interactions control stem-cell differentiation and the spread of cancer throughout the body, he says. Using the approach, large arrays could be covered with hundreds of thousands of cells to get statistically significant information about how they react to these spatially patterned chemical cues.
Milan Mrksich, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, says Mirkin’s new lithography technique could enable completely new areas of research. It might enable new studies of cell adhesion, for instance. Biologists know that a cell’s attachment to a surface is determined by tiny nanostructures called focal adhesions that vary in size. These are important because when cell adhesion breaks down, a cancer cell might break free from a tumor and spread throughout the body. Mrksich says patterned arrays made using Mirkin’s technique could show cell biologists how the size of the focal adhesions regulates cell behavior.
“This method should open up desktop fabrication capabilities to many more researchers,” says Mirkin. A company called Nano Ink has commercialized previous lithography methods from his lab. He says the university is likely to license the nanolithography method to a company, not necessarily Nano Ink. Mrksich is also on the scientific advisory board of that company.