HP Says Atom-Sized Computer
Chips A Lot Closer
By Oliver August in Beijing
The Times - London

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hewlett-Packard Co. and University of California scientists have patented a process they said on Wednesday would eventually help turn out powerful computers which fit on the head of a pin with room to spare.
Scientists need to shrink computers to make them more powerful, but the technology of putting circuits on silicon, the basis of current computer chips, is reaching the natural limits of the wafers to hold circuits, turning up the pressure for a breakthrough.
Computer makers like International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett-Packard -- with its University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) partners -- are racing to develop nanotechnology, which is based on parts a few atoms wide.
HP said it was ahead on designing a complex nanochip as well as the parts and could be making nano-computers smaller than a bacterium, able to be weaved into a shirt, in the next decade or so.
The new patent was key to a play to commercialize nano-chips by building factories to produce them, and lab experiments had proved the concept -- although they used components much bigger than the nanowires a few atoms wide.
The patent announced on Wednesday covers a process to pack a number of different functions into a single nanochip by dividing the chip into different zones where independent calculations could take place.
Previously, HP had figured out how to use chemical processes to make grids of nanowires a few atoms thick and to place molecules at the intersections of the wires.
They also figured out how to manipulate the molecules to block or let electricity pass through, which is the basic operation at the heart of a microprocessor and proved that the nanochip could work.
The newly-patented process could break the huge grid into smaller zones by using electrical charges to make ``cuts'' in the nanowires. HP compares it to breaking up a city street grid into neighborhoods with alleys and cul de sacs that have operate independently but are linked by major thoroughfares.
The performance improves because a single chip can do a number of things. ``It is not really a question of speed -- you are always going real fast -- but a question of how many things you can pack together,'' said HP scientist Phil Kuekes, a computer architect on the team which was awarded the patent.
It is relatively cheap and easy to make big batches of nano-chips, but the tiny grids tend to have imperfections. HP's solution is to discover the defects of a chip after it is made and then, using the nano-cutting technology, to customize them.
``We see a future where the chips will come out and no two chips will be identical. Each one will be customized for a particular function,'' said HP's Stanley Williams, the chemist in the group. UCLA professor James Heath was the third member of the team.
Current computer chip design software could be used to design chips and adapt for their imperfections, and manufacturing costs would be dramatically cut, HP said.
That cost savings would be achieved even after an investment in supercomputers needed to test the chips and then design and program them, HP said.
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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