Here’s the server rack at the high school. It’s all based on the most precise printers on the planet. Prints of new processor designs are exposed onto a platter of silica. Layer by layer, the processor is exposed onto the platter. Billions of transistors can be bunched together onto incredibly small bits of the platter. There is a limit, though. These are essentially the smallest wires that we make. The closer they get, the more chance there is for them crossing over and shorting out. The most advanced printers can make lines about 120 nano meters apart. the process has a built in error of about 20 nano meters. So, if the exposure process bleeds 20 nanometers on either side of the line, the smallest we can get with this process is about 80 nanometers. We’re getting close to the limit of our chip production precision. If the cost of improving the technology from 80 nano meters to 20 nano meters is so much that companies can’t afford it, the cheap computer boom will fall flat on it’s face. Instead of getting cheaper, computers would start to get more expensive. here’s how close we are to the limit. Texas Instruments is building a chip plant in Singapore that costs more than the GDP of 3/4 of the countries on the planet.
There are several proposals to break the price escalation of chip manufacture. I watched a video about one of those proposals last night. Nano Imprint Lithography proposes to do away with the exposure process. Instead of shining light through a mask to etch the surface of the chip, Grant Wilson etches lines onto a stamp with an incredibly precise electron beam. He thens presses the stamp into a polymer. Shining light on the polymer solidifies it. He’s been able to create lines as small as 40 nano meters. there are still some problems with his technology, as there are with the other proposals for sub 80 nano meter impression technology.
Here is the link to the Grant Wilson talk at MIT: http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/483/
Update: I’ve just been browsing Intel’s site, and they claim to have a 45 nm chip in development. Cool!