Photos: Inside IBM's Zurich research lab

Photos: Inside IBM's Zurich research lab

Summary: The scanning tunnelling microscope is one of the Nobel prize-winning technical breakthroughs to come out of IBM's Zurich laboratory. ZDNet UK went to have a peek at what the lab is working on now, as it gears up to celebrate its 50th birthday

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

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  • This is the entrance to the IBM Research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, which will host a double celebration this summer.

    The lab, founded 50 years ago, was IBM's first research facility outside the US. And 25 years ago the lab made its most famous research breakthrough: the scanning tunnelling microscope, which provided the foundation for understanding and working with nanoscale technology.

    That breakthrough brought a Nobel prize in physics in 1986 for Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer. Only a year later the lab hit the research jackpot again when Georg Bednorz and Alex Mueller scooped the same prize for their work on high-temperature superconductivity.

    Two Nobels in two years is some achievement, especially as IBM Research as a whole has only won a total of three.

    To mark the anniversary, ZDNet UK visited the Zurich lab to see some of its current research.

    Despite its pedigree, IBM Zurich is quite small. There are 240 employees and 50 pre-doctoral and 30 post-doctoral students. IBM Research as a whole has 3,500 employees in eight laboratories around the world -- three in the US, including Thomas Watson, which is the largest.

    The work of the lab in Zurich varies widely, from advanced silicon research (some of the most cutting-edge in the world) to helping IBM's consulting arm win new business.

    "IBM's research division is the largest private research organisation in the world," said Dr Karin Vey, communications manager for the Zurich lab.

  • Investigating nanoscale objects is a hugely tricky process -- even with a scanning electron microscope -- and the research needs to be conducted in a special atmosphere. This particular work, conduced by Dr Walter Riess, the research manager for nanoscale structures and devices, is looking at ways of growing nanowires.

    A nanowire is an extremely narrow object that has an aspect ratio (the ratio between length and width) of 1,000 to 1 or greater. At this time nanowires and their possible uses exist only in the realms of research, but Dr Riess and his team are investigating different elements for their suitability for "growing" nanowires, and trying to deduce the properties those wires will have. The aim is to use nanowires to manufacture microprocessors.

    A microprocessor built from nanowires whould, in theory, be much more powerful than current processors since computers are based on electrical signals running through very narrow channels. Today's microprocessors are so small inside that signals leak and create interference, which is a problem that will only get bigger as the channels get smaller. Can nanowires conduct electrical signals in nanoscale structures? A lot of science needs to be done before we know the answer to that one.

    We asked Dr Riess what the most promising materials were for creating nanowires. His only answer was to smile.

  • Another major focus for IBM Zurich is research into ways of dissipating heat from microprocessors.

    Heat has been an issue in computing since the days of mainframes when methods like water cooling were used to try and keep processors from melting. It remains a problem today, even though manufacturers have tried a range of possible solutions from complex fans and air cooling to massive heat sinks.

    Dr Bruno Michel, manager for advanced thermal packaging, and his team are working on a procedure that uses a combination of techniques to find more effective cooling. The secret is all in the packaging -- Dr Michel's team are working on a chip package that puts a thermal paste directly on the processor and then attaches a heat sink that can dissipate some of the heat.

    This picture shows a chip (left) with thermal paste added and a copper heat dissipater attached. The liquid cooling attachment (shown right) is also experimental.

    Dr Michel and his team are testing many different pastes that can be used as adhesives for attaching processors and have great heat dissipation properties. As you would expect, he does not want to talk about the different pastes they use.

Topic: Emerging Tech


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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