Silicon-based integrated circuits currently used in cell phones and mp3 players are about as small as they’re going to get with current technology. Now, in response to consumer demand for even faster, more efficient electronic devices, chemists are racing to develop tiny molecular structures that would process data instead—and a UWindsor PhD student in chemistry has joined the race.
“Everyone knows that if we want data to be transferred faster we need to make things smaller, but we’ve almost reached the limit now with how small we can go,” said Mike Miller, who recently won a three-year post-graduate doctoral scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council worth $63,000.
Miller, who works under the supervision of associate professor Tricia Carmichael, said many scientists are trying to create molecular wires and resistors by linking together chains of functional molecules that could be lined up in such a way so that one day, data could be transferred through them and they could replace conventional circuits. Miller’s attention, meanwhile, is devoted to studying ways to smooth the surfaces those molecules would bond with, as a way of ensuring better conductivity and data transfer.
Specifically, he is analyzing an industrial process called chemical mechanical planarization, which involves polishing metal surfaces with a combination of abrasives and chemical etchants to control the surface roughness and grain structure of thin films of metals such as gold, copper, silver and palladium.
“We’re studying what we can change about the molecules, but also what we can change about the surfaces and how that might affect how those molecules will behave,” he said. “It’s not quite there yet. There’s a lot of fundamental work that needs to be done.”
But if breakthroughs are made, they’ll go a long way towards creating some amazing new technologies, such as low-cost flexible electronic devices. As an example, Miller points to the possibility of electronic wallpaper. Users would be able to change the look of their room with a few simple keystrokes instead of stripping and putting new paper up on their walls, he said.