If nanotechnology experts are correct, within the next several years, all the text in the Library of Congress could be stored on a device the size of a sugar cube. But in order for that to happen, some infinitesimally small miracles have to happen first.

NC State professors Jonathan Lindsey, Veena Misra, Wentai Liu and Eric Rotenberg, along with two colleagues at the University of California at Riverside, are betting on just such miracles. The team believes it can speed up the practical use of nanotechnology to create tiny supercomputers by incorporating "molecular storage" into standard microelectronic circuitry, using molecules synthesized in a lab at NC State.

The make-up of the research team proving the concept demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the challenge. Lindsey, the Glaxo Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the NC State's College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, synthesizes the molecules. UC Riverside chemists Drs. Werner Kuhr and David Bocian (who earned a degree at NC State) characterize the materials. Liu, an engineer, is the circuit designer. Misra, also an engineer, fabricates the memory devices. And Rotenberg, a computer architect, is looking at how computers themselves might be redesigned if they had all that memory.

Misra is a recipient of a 2001 NSF Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers—the highest honor given by the U.S. government to young scientists and engineers who show exceptional potential for leadership in their fields—for her work with silicon nanoelectronics. She explains that although the number of components the industry can put on a chip doubles every 18 months, there is a limit to how far miniaturization of silicon devices can go. "We will hit the wall at about 10 nanometers," says Misra. "The devices just won't work smaller than that. So instead of using silicon devices as memory storage elements, our team is using porphyrin molecules with functional properties that remain the same at any scale.” At only two nanometers across, these molecules can be much more densely and inexpensively packed on a chip.

The highly innovative group has racked up an impressive 11 molecular memory patents at NC State, seven jointly held with UC Riverside. In 1999, the three chemists launched a start-up company called ZettaCore, which has licensed all 11 inventions for commercialization and leased incubator space on NC State’s Centennial Campus and in Denver, Colorado. Lindsey allows that most of molecular electronics' promise is at least a generation away from the store shelf. But ZettaCore's technology will allow accelerated development of "hybrid" chips that leverage both the advantages of molecular storage (using stable molecules as capacitors to store a charge) and the substantial capital investment of the existing silicon semiconductor manufacturing industry. Lindsey thinks the hybrid approach is a near-term proposition, maybe only four or five years away. "The industry won't have to change much to use molecular materials in the memory portion of existing chip technology," he says, "and there appears to be no end to the demand for memory." With the worldwide market for computer chips at $35 billion and growing, both universities and ZettaCore's venture capital investors are beaming.

Although ZettaCore expects its products to be both ubiquitous and highly profitable, don't expect to see the company building large manufacturing plants. Instead, it will likely sell its powerful molecules to the big chip fabrication players. Besides, Lindsey says that all the molecular material needed by the chip industry for several hundred thousand computers—or about a million chips—would fit in an ice cream scoop. Small miracles, indeed.

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