Broad access to nanoscale technologies

Background

Miniaturization, or “small tech,” has revolutionized the world we live in today. It has transformed computers from gigantic rooms to the size of our palms, changed displays from being too bulky to carry to being wrappable like a plastic sheet, and allowed sensors to be ubiquitously present in our everyday lives, to name a few. This miniaturization has been made possible because of our ability to fabricate multi-scale devices: human-scale devices (on the order of a square millimeter in cross-section area or greater, or a cubic millimeter volume or greater) with controlled minimum features that provide functionality at scales that are much smaller, possessing minimum functional feature size (MFFS) on the order of hundreds of micrometers or significantly smaller.

The semiconductor fabrication industry has led this trend with the self-prophetic Moore’s Law. Driven by aggressive scaling of lithography, it allowed fabrication of smaller transistors along with the ability to pack more transistors in the same form factor. MFFS has gone from 100 micrometers, to 10 micrometers, then to 1 micrometer and more recently, well below 100 nanometers. This continuous shrinking trend has led to tremendous increases in functionality in a broad spectrum of applications, including computing (e.g., data storage, displays, sensors and controllers in automotive, aerospace, defense, and security), health care monitoring, pharmaceutical, gaming and entertainment, energy generation and storage, etc. For example, in computing, power (processing speed and complexity), reduced power consumption, low power ultra-high density memory, and high-resolution low power displays—all available in compact form factors—have led to the revolution in mobile computing.

Technology description

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a system which allows practical, hands-on exposure to fabricating, characterizing, measuring, validating and perhaps designing small tech structures or devices. The system can cover the broad spectrum of STEM disciplines amenable to small tech interventions. To address the challenge of broad access in small-tech education and innovation, our invention is the design of a small-tech experimentation system (STES), which is created in a small-tech factory setting to leverage the value of big scales, the STES comprising:

  • A fabrication module with a unique identifier
  • A metrology module
  • A quality control module, along with a reporting and communication submodule
  • Optionally, a design/exploration module

Results

The scalability of deploying these systems is also an important characteristic for it to address the challenge of broad access. This can be achieved in the following ways, all of which form important concepts behind this invention:

  • Ability for anybody to safely conduct the use of this system in a residential setting or even in the absence of even basic K-12 laboratory facilities
  • Portability of the system
  • Ability to mass produce this system while also, optionally, customizing constituents of the fabrication module. Mass production and deployment of the same system with the same constituents may be the basic product, but for the purpose of education and innovation, customization or randomization of the characteristics of one or more constituents may be preferred, especially in a structured class environment, or for prototyping.
  • Ability to associate each system with a unique identifier to enable calibration and validation of experimental results, especially with customized/randomized constituents