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3D printer writes microscopic patterns

28 Apr 2014  | R. Colin Johnson

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A microscopic 3D printer that can write nanometre resolution patterns into a soft polymer is now out in the market, thanks to IBM Research in Zurich, which developed the machine. The patterns, which can be transferred to silicon, III-V (gallium arsenide – GaAs). can be both written and read for verification in real-time as the engineers watches under a microscope unlike e-beam lithography.

"The big difference when compared to e-beam is that you can easily write 3D patterns, which is extremely challenging for e-beams," Colin Rawlings, a scientist at IBM Research told EE Times. "The other big difference is its imaging capability—we can read as well as write. After creating a 3D pattern we then turn off the heat to the tip and use it like an AFM [atomic force microscope] to measure with sub-nanometre resolution—allowing us to verify our 3D patterns as well as easily locate structures beneath the polymer layer."

The microscopic 3D printer is being licensed to Zurich start-up SwissLitho AG, which calls it the NanoFrazor—a play on words between the English word razor and the German word for "milling machine," frase. The NanoFrazor, which behaves like a nanometre resolution milling machine, outperforms e-beams in many ways but costs a fraction of the price—around $500,000, as opposed to e-beams, which cost from $1.5million to as much as $30million.

 Atomic force microscope

Figure 1: IBM's mechanism works like an atomic force microscope (AFM) but with a heated tip that can sculpt 3D nanometre resolution patterns. (Source: IBM)

"The NanoFrazor is great for rapid prototyping of all sorts of applications," Rawlings told EE Times. "It runs open loop in order to achieve scan speeds of millimetres per second and uses a specialised heated tip, mounted on a bendable cantilever, that is 700nm long, but just 10nm in radius at its tip."

Line width accuracy is 10nm, but 3D depth accuracy is 1nm, while reading back the measured depth of patterns has sub-nanometre accuracy. IBM hopes to be prototyping tunnelling field-effect transistors (FETs) in III-V and graphene materials by the end of 2014, using a lithographic transfer technique.

 Heated tip of the 3D printing mechanism

Figure 2: The heated tip of the 3D printing mechanism is 700nm long but just 10nm at its tip and can be positioned with nanometre resolution. (Source: IBM)

"We deposit a polymer layer then a silicon or III-V layer then another polymer layer that we write into," Rawlings told us. "Then after writing we switch to a system that uniformly thins the entire polymer, resulting in holes where the pattern has been made. Then we use standard techniques to etch through the polymer and eventually into the substrate underneath, creating a mask where we can deposit materials through the holes in the pattern."

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