See Inside January 2008

Squirt and Spin

Printers squirt out silicon chips, and the spin of electrons is used in computer logic

We now look back with pity on old computer printers, with their glacial bizz-buzz and annoying perforated-edge paper. A decade from now people will surely look back in pity on the things we call printers today. Three-dimensional printers, capable of producing entire objects, are already coming down in price, and new types of printers can output electronic circuit boards or even entire functional circuits. Now researchers have a printer that outputs silicon chips.

The device, created by materials scientist Masahiro Furusawa of Seiko Epson Corporation in Japan and his colleagues, squirts out polysilane, a polymer of silicon and hydrogen. Once laid down, it can be baked at kitchen-oven-cleaning temperatures to drive out the hydrogen and leave behind crystalline silicon. The technique provides an alternative to the conventional process for producing microchips, which requires refining, stenciling and etching the silicon—a sequence that is both complicated and wasteful: 99 percent of the original silicon is thrown away. The silicon printer is still fussy and does not produce chips with as fine a level of detail. Nevertheless, it might lower the cost of low-resolution silicon devices such as display circuitry and solar cells.

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