A world of Lilliputian sensors, transistors, and lasers is in development at nanotechnology labs worldwide. These devices point to a future of ultrafast and cheap electronics and communications. But making nanotechnology relevant beyond the lab is difficult because of the lack of suitable manufacturing techniques. The tools used to mass-produce silicon microchips are far too blunt for nanofabrication, and specialized lab methods are far too expensive and time-consuming to be practical. “Right now everybody is talking about nanotechnology, but the commercialization of nanotechnology critically depends upon our ability to manufacture,” says Princeton University electrical engineer Stephen Chou.
A mechanism just slightly more sophisticated than a printing press could be the answer, Chou believes. Simply by stamping a hard mold into a soft material, he can faithfully imprint features smaller than 10 nanometers across. Last summer, in a dramatic demonstration of the potential of the technique, Chou showed that he could make nano features directly in silicon and metal. By flashing the solid with a powerful laser, he melted the surface just long enough to press in the mold and imprint the desired features.