The global semiconductor industry will derive enormous economic benefit from a new method of writing nanometer-scale patterns that could prompt some offshore semiconductor manufacturers to return to the U.S., said William King, the research project’s principle investigator at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Citing labor and facility costs as reasons for offshoring, Dr. King, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, told GlobalAtlanta, “The manufacturing technique we developed could reduce semiconductor development and prototyping costs in a way that might bring some of that manufacturing back to the U.S.”

Reported in the Aug. 30 issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters, this breakthrough in the use of atomic force microscopy probes as writing utensils – called thermal dip pen nanolithography – allows the writing of nanometer-scale patterns on a variety of new surfaces and at a scale well beyond the limits of standard semiconductor patterning processes.

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.

The research team, which includes Dr. King’s graduate students Brent Nelson and Tanya Wright, is in the process of producing a semiconductor device that could be inserted into standard semiconductor processes within the next 18 months, he said.

“The economic impact of this development could be enormous,” Dr. King said.

Production costs can be reduced, he said, by thermal dip pens that inspect semiconductor chips and make immediate repairs on faulty circuitry.

Another opportunity comes from the new technique’s ability to address economy-of-scale issues that make production of prototypes very expensive and small quantities of semiconductor chips unaffordable. The new manufacturing technique will allow rapid prototyping, as well as cost-effective production of a small number of devices, he said.

But, “In my opinion, the most exciting part of this is not that it will help the semiconductor industry save money today, but that it offers new opportunities for tomorrow,” Dr. King said.

Beyond its application to the electronics industry, the method could be used to simultaneously test large numbers of biofunctional devices like gene chips or to integrate new materials into manufactured semiconductors, he said. It also provides a new tool for studying nanometer-scale phenomena.

The research was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

For more information, contact Dr. King at