Russell and Xu's approach differs from how other researchers have been trying to increase storage density. Most have been using optical lithography, which sends light through a mask onto a photosensitive surface. That process creates a pattern to guide the copolymers into assembling.
The new technology could create chip features just 3nm across, far outstripping current microprocessor manufacturing techniques, which at their best create features about 45nm across. Photolithography is running into basic barriers to achieving greater density, and the new approach uses less environmentally harmful chemicals, Xu said. But actually applying the technique to CPUs would pose some challenges, such as the need to create random patterns on a CPU, Xu said.
Among other things, such a leap ahead in storage density could alter either the amount of content that a person could carry with them or the quality of media delivered on discs, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64. For example, it might allow movies to turn into holograms, he said.
"Just when we think we're so technically sophisticated in what we can do, along comes somebody with a notion like this, which has the potential to fundamentally change economics in so many different areas," Brookwood said.
Ultra-high-definition displays have less practical potential, according to IDC analyst Tom Mainelli. The image and video standards of today, including those used in HDTV, couldn't take advantage of a display with 3nm pixels, he said. And when it comes to monitors, price is king.
"You could see how there would be a value to that level of precision (in an area like medical imaging) ... but are we talking about a [US]$10,000 display?" Mainelli said.
Insight64's Brookwood said the technology, for which Berkeley and Amherst have applied for a patent, harkens back to fundamental breakthroughs that created the IT industry, he said.
"It's this kind of basic materials research that has created the opportunities that have made Silicon Valley and American manufacturing great," Brookwood said. "The last few years (in the U.S.), there have been fewer and fewer people working on this level of basic stuff," he said.
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