Developments to Watch
A One-Two Punch for Packing More on a Chip
OPTICAL LITHOGRAPHY IS HIGH TECH'S CAT with nine lives. Not long ago, chips "printed" by optical techniques--the mainstay for four decades--seemed to be on their last legs. By 2005, researchers thought, light simply could not draw ever-thinner lines for ever-faster chips.
But engineers have now found new life in the optical spectrum. It's called extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light--and TRW Inc.'s Space & Electronics Group has just uncorked a prototype system for generating EUV light.
Today's cutting-edge chips are printed with deep-UV lasers, which have wavelengths of around 200 nanometers. Because of physical limitations, deep UV can't print lines much thinner than 0.15 microns. (A human hair is about 100 microns wide.)
But light from TRW's EUV laser cuts a swath of only 13 nanometers. With EUV, printing lines finer than 0.1 micron will be a snap. In fact, EUV lasers are such a drastic improvement, says Thomas E. Romesser, vice-president for TRW's laser business, that they could extend optical lithography's reign for 10 more years.
New competition, however, could soon threaten even EUV optics. In laboratories, researchers can print lines as skinny as 0.01 micron using 4-nanometer X-rays. The hang-up has been that it took a huge synchrotron, or atom smasher, to generate those tiny X-rays.
Not anymore. JMAR Technologies Inc. in San Diego has just unveiled a file-cabinet-size system that produces 1-nanometer X-rays. Chairman John S. Martinez predicts that X-ray lithography will soon give optical equipment a run for its money.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
"Smart" Scalpels That Tell Doctors Where to Stop
NEW SURGICAL INSTRUMENTS DEVELOPED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN at Madison may give new meaning to the term "cutting edge." Assistant engineering professor Amit Lal has devised a way to carve tiny blades from silicon using microlithography, the technique that etches computer chips. Lal figures that the knives, which can be 10 times sharper than metal tools, will quickly find applications in delicate procedures, such as neurosurgery or cataract surgery.
These high-tech knives aren't just sharper. They also vibrate at rates as high as 200,000 times per second. That allows the blades to "melt" tissue structures as they makes incisions. Moreover, because the blades are made of silicon, they can be equipped with computer circuits--for example, built-in sensors that detect whether the tissue being cut is healthy or diseased, and instantly relay this to the surgeon. That could reduce the time spent in surgery--and the amount of healthy tissue that now gets excised around the target spot.
Becton Dickinson & Co., a medical-supply company in Franklin Lakes, N.J., hopes to use the technology to make painless needles for syringes. Thanks to their ultrasonic action, such needles would require almost no pressure to puncture the skin--banishing the "ouch" from injections.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
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Heart Attacks: Fewer False Alarms
SIX MILLION AMERICANS VISIT EMERGENCY ROOMS EACH YEAR complaining of chest pain. Only 10% of them have had an actual heart attack, though--and weeding them out for treatment is tough. Electrocardiogram plots of a person's heart rhythm are difficult to interpret, and laboratory tests can take as long as three hours to yield answers. As a result, roughly 40% of heart-attack victims don't get timely treatment, and 15% of people suffering from chest pain are mistakenly admitted to intensive-care units. The American College of Cardiology estimates that these unnecessary admissions cost $6 billion annually.
A new tool called the Triage Cardiac System, developed by Biosite Diagnostics Inc. in San Diego, promises to end the guesswork. The handheld device measures the three heart enzymes that serve as markers of a heart attack. Getting results takes only 15 minutes and two drops of blood. Dr. Alan Maisel, director of coronary care at San Diego Veteran's Affairs Hospital, has used Biosite's gadget to examine 1,500 patients. He was able to spot 100% of the true heart-attack victims--in half the normal time. In addition, ICU admissions because of chest pain, he says, dropped significantly. That's heartening news.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top