Electronics: Joseph M. Jacobson

Discover Magazine Innovation Awards

By Joseph DAgneseJul 1, 2001 5:00 AM


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2001 Awards IndexEditors' choice Electronics TransportationHealthEntertainmentAerospaceCommunicationsEnvironmentFinalistsThe Christopher Columbus Foundation Award






Photograph by Ethan Hill

These days conventional silicon chips are etched in billion-dollar fabrication plants that operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Creating a compact-disc-sized wafer full of semiconductors— the microelectronic processors that increasingly run our lives— takes three weeks, hundreds of steps, and an absolutely sterile environment. So antiseptic, in fact, that the workers who toil in these "fabs" must wear pristine head-to-toe gear called bunny suits. But soon, thanks to Joe Jacobson, we'll kiss the bunnies good-bye and churn out perfectly acceptable circuits in seconds on ink-jet printers.

Jacobson, 35, has demonstrated how we can make chips cheaper, better, and faster using a "nanotectic" liquid that is part solvent, part crystal. The crystals are so tiny they must be measured in nanometers— mere billionths of a meter. When the liquid is applied to a flexible base such as plastic, the solvent evaporates, leaving the crystal nano-particles— the very same semiconductors found in everyday chips— to form structures capable of conducting electricity. So far Jacobson's team has built simple transistors, and logic chips, the brains of computers, are just around the corner, perhaps within four years. The team's finest hour came when members engineered a MEMS, a microelectromechanical system with moving parts usually designed to perform a switching task. "We printed a tiny motor," says Jacobson, "and it spun!"

Cheap chips will mean a little bit of logic can be embedded in everything from index cards to wallpaper, even clothing— wearable computers that can give you weather, maps, even phone 911 in a medical emergency. They'll be so easy to make that many a tech-savvy teen will bag the Web in favor of designing and printing the brains of his or her next computer. "Imagine," says Jacobson, "what'll happen when there are a billion kids on the planet using desktop fabs. We've got to get those kids inventing, playing with real physical things, with more sophisticated equipment. Playing at the atomic scale. We'll end up with a population that's familiar with nanometer-scale projects."

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