IBM has unveiled the world’s smallest magazine cover at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. Certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, the micro magazine is a reproduction of the cover of the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Kids and is many times smaller than a grain of salt at just 11 × 14 micrometers. Why, you ask? The tiny cover was created to demonstrate potential of a new nano-scale manufacturing technology, as well to encourage young people’s interest in science and technology.
The tiny publication has nothing to do with breaking into the magazines-for-microbes market. Its creation is part of an effort by IBM to deal with Moore’s Law, the famous observation that number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. That’s held true for decades, but IBM says that as chips grow ever smaller Moore's Law is close to reaching its limits, as can be seen in the example of processor clock speeds not increasing by much for the past five years.
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IBM sees the possible solution to this barrier in materials other than silicon and new types of transistors as the basis for new electronics. However, that creates its own problems because using these new materials and working on tinier scales requires new ways of fabricating them. Until now, the standard technique has been using an electron beam to create prototype circuits in a technique called e-beam lithography. This works, but it’s expensive, slow, and needs a lot of equipment.
What IBM wanted was something cheaper, faster, and more compact. It had to be able to fabricate prototypes of new components quickly, and had to work on scales below 30 nanometers. To give some idea of this scale, one nanometer is 80,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
IBM’s solution was called nanopatterning or nanomilling. Taking a page from the ancient Egyptians, who used to chisel hieroglyphics in stone, IBM researchers decided that instead of printing circuits as with an electron beam, they’d chisel them out using a tiny, heatable silicon tip with a sharp apex that's 100,000 times smaller than the tip of a sharpened pencil. As the tip, heated to 1000⁰ C (1,832⁰ F), moves over the surface of a tiny sheet of polymer, it acts like a 3D printer that “chisels” away material by local evaporation. This also makes it a much more compact machine that fits on a tabletop and can print items in minutes that an electron beam would take hours to accomplish due to e-lithography’s complex processing and imaging steps.
“With our novel technique we can achieve very a high resolution at 10 nanometers at greatly reduced cost and complexity," says Dr. Armin Knoll, a physicist at IBM Research. "In particular by controlling the amount of material evaporated, we can also produce 3D relief patterns at the unprecedented accuracy of merely one nanometer in a vertical direction. Now it’s up to the imagination of scientists and engineers to apply this technique to real-world challenges.”
But what has this to do with magazines? IBM and National Geographic Kids magazine decided to show the capabilities of the new nano-chisel in a way that might also spark the enthusiasm of young people. After running a poll that let kids select which cover to use, IBM used the tool to print the cover on a sheet of polymer, which measures 11 × 14 micrometers. That’s small enough for 2,000 to fit on a grain of salt – and to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
“National Geographic Kids magazine subscribers loved this cover, so it makes sense that a broader audience would vote it as their favorite of 2014 as well," says Rachel Buchholz, vice president and editor of National Geographic Kids. "And by helping to set this Guinness World Records title, they're learning about science while having fun, which is what Kids is all about.”
Developed at IBM, the chisel technology is now on the market and Swiss company SwissLitho has obtained a license to make nanopatterning tools under the brand NanoFrazor, the first of which was recently delivered to McGill University’s Nanotools Microfab in Canada, where it was used to make a nano-sized map of Canada measuring 30 micrometers long.
IBM sees a number of applications for the new technology beyond electronics, such as creating nano-sized security tags for currency, passports, and artworks, as well as applications in quantum computing, where it could be used to manipulate electromagnetic radiation.
The video below shows how the world’s smallest magazine cover was made.