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Electron beams boost nanotechnology. (Miniaturization).

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., has acquired one of the world's finest electron beam lithography systems, one that will allow researchers to work on the submolecular scale. For NASA, this means breakthroughs in miniaturization that could lead to significant reductions in mass and cost of spacecraft to took for traces of life on distant planets. For researchers, it means access to one of just three such systems in the world, and the only one in the public sector devoted to pure research for building the nanoscale devices of the future.

Operated in the Microdevices Laboratory at JPL, it provides a tool for delving into the realm of nanotechnology, where the individual molecules become accessible to electronic probing. "The E-Beam lithography system will allow researchers to work at the equivalent level of nature's biological building blocks, by allowing them to create and research technologies at the cellular and subcellular level," notes Paul Maker, manager of JPL's Electron Beam Lithography Laboratory. (Lithography is the process of printing a pattern onto a surface, such as a silicon chip or a high-resolution film.)

"The E-Beam lithography system is like a very fast, very high-resolution camera, but instead of exposing photo-sensitive film to light, a thin layer of electron-sensitive material is exposed to electrons. Instead of using a shutter that imprints the whole image at once, an intense electron beam focused to a tiny spot is rastered [scanned] over the chip like the beam that creates the image on a television screen." Just as with photographic film, subsequent

processing steps develop the image that was imprinted on the film, in this case, the device structure.

The system allows users to "write" 10 times faster with a spot that is two times smaller than can be done with the system currently in place, installed 12 years ago. "The faster `writing' speed means we can fabricate many more of these experimental chips, thereby reducing the time it takes to perfect a new chip design. The higher resolution translates into device designs with much-finer detail, leading to smaller, more capable chips," Maker explains.

NASA faces the challenge of miniaturizing all aspects of its space systems, with the ultimate goal of reducing the size and mass of instruments by orders of magnitude without sacrificing performance--like creating an entire laboratory on a chip with the same sensitivity as the room-size version. "Since this machine is capable of producing patterns with feature sizes on the scale of molecules," Maker indicates, "we can now develop miniature devices that allow us to manipulate and characterize these minute building blocks of nature, and create tools that can be used to search for the signatures of life in a controlled manner."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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