Take a look at the image above and tell us what do you see. A field of mushrooms? A series of tubes a la Super Mario Bros.? Actually they're a crop of silicon nanowires, grown by IBM researcher Frances Ross. The gray columns are the wires and the black blob are liquid droplets that catalyze the growth of the nanowires.
One day, these mushroom-shaped wires just may replace today's transistors:
In Dr. Ross’s laboratory at I.B.M., researchers are concentrating on more near-term technology. They are exploring the idea of constructing FinFET switches in a radical new process that breaks away from photo etching. It is a kind of nanofarming. Dr. Ross sprinkles gold particles as small as 10 nanometers in diameter on a substrate and then suffuses them in a silicon gas at a temperature of about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes the particles to become “supersaturated” with silicon from the gas, which will then precipitate into a solid, forming a wire that grows vertically.
I.B.M. is pressing aggressively to develop this technology, which could be available commercially by 2012, she said. At the same time she acknowledged that significant challenges remain in perfecting nanowire technology. The mushroom-shaped wires in her laboratory now look a little bit like bonsai trees. To offer the kind of switching performances chipmakers require, the researchers must learn to make them so that their surfaces are perfectly regular. Moreover, techniques must be developed to make them behave like semiconductors.