A Giant in the Field of Small Things

In 1989 Don Eigler wrote nano-history. The IBM scientist used 35 xenon atoms to create a minute IBM logo. At the beginning of September this year, the physicist accepted an invitation from Credit Suisse to speak about the future of information technology in Boston. Eigler is in no doubt that nanotechnology will play a key role in the development of IT.

By Peter Hossli

The audience’s curiosity was palpable when Don Eiger got up to deliver his speech in the windowless room. After all, doesn’t everyone want to know today precisely what tomorrow will bring? But the elegant and eloquent IBM researcher with a graying ponytail was quick to pour cold water on their expectations, quoting a prediction made by the first head of IBM. “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”, said Thomas Watson back in 1943. How wrong he was. “This shows how dangerous forecasts are”, observed Eigler – before going on to make a prophecy of his own.

The IBM physician, who carries out his research at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, argued that his courage to make predictions was based on confidence. “Nanotechnology will play a central role in the development of the IT. I have no doubt about that.” He justified his optimism by pointing out that semiconductors were being manufactured in the nano area even as he spoke. Moreover, the IT industry was constantly hankering after things being even smaller. The conventional wisdom in the industry is that the smaller the chips, the better the integration, the higher the level of performance, and the cheaper the price. “No field is better placed to deliver on these requirements than nanotechnology.”

An Artist among Scientists

His speech in Boston was the highlight of an “interactive field trip” organized by Credit Suisse. In succinct and easily comprehensible terms, Eigler sketched out the highly complex processes in a number of fields of nanotechnology. He lived up to his billing as a “Renaissance Man”, as he was once described by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who added that he was “a sober scientist, but also a creative artist”. The San Francisco Chronicle, meanwhile, praised him as a “colossus of small things”. Holding a physics doctorate, Eigler pursues huge goals in the minutest of environments. He wants to prove that atoms and molecules can be not just observed, but also controlled and even modified.

The greatest moment for this tanned recreational surfer came in 1989, when he cooled 35 xenon atoms to an extremely low temperature and strung them neatly to an IBM logo. This involved him spending 18 months modifying the scanning tunneling microscope developed in Switzerland’s Rüschlikon in 1981. Eigler later harnessed his knowledge of quantum mechanics to discover a method for transporting information in wave-like fashion between electrons.

The Days of the Silicon Chip Appear Numbered

Eigler’s research has not yet fed through into marketable products. But it does show where IT is heading fast – “to nanotechnology”, he says. And thus away from silicon, the basic material of current computer chips. For the first time silicon is finding its limitations. Today’s computers get hot too easily, with a resulting stagnation of performance and a limit to what they can handle. Eigler reckons that transistors made from carbon nano-tubes could end up replacing the silicon chip. These are carbon structures altered by nanotechnology. They conduct better, are more durable, and can be used in a much smaller space. Another possibility is that of three-dimensional chips that use the laws of quantum mechanics. This would provide the answer to the problem of heat, Eigler believes. He is also expecting “phenomenal progress” in the area of photolithography, i.e. the way that conventional semiconductors are fabricated.

Eigler nonetheless warns against overdoing the optimism, suggesting it could be years until the first of these products changed the IT industry. “Silicon remains on the IT throne, and dislodging a king from his throne is never easy.” Both companies and researchers looking to use nanotechnology to achieve this end should never lose sight of one objective: “New semiconductors have to be faster and deliver greater performance than conventional chips,” asserts Eigler, “and they must be more energy-efficient.”

Not All Nano Areas Will Be Profitable

Eigler believes that the information technology industry will develop at two speeds. On the one hand there will be “evolutionary nanotechnology” with predictable timetables, produced by established companies and with rather modest results. Alongside this will come “revolutionary nanotechnology”, led by hundreds of start-ups. “The potential here is massive.”

But will these companies ever make money? This was the question on so many lips among the audience in Boston. Ultimately this was a question that Eigler could not answer. But he did give a number of tips as to the kinds of questions investors should ask. For example, he believes it essential that the new products can be produced using existing tools. “It must be a technology that can be further developed over a long period of time,” opined Eigler. Only such an approach would make long-term profits possible. “Otherwise we will end up with nanotechnology in the area where no one wants to be: in the hell-hole of consumer durables.”