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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  • 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.

  • Instead of a heat sink, chips could be covered with a liquid cooling device. This is an "immersion jet impingement" with distributed coolant returns.

    The device is about the size of the packaging on a current Pentium processor but inside that small space there are 50,000 coolant nozzles. The result is that coolant can be circulated very quickly.

    Dr Michel believes this is another promising research strand.

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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