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  • Light Creates Tiny Patterns
Jun 2008
PRINCETON, N.J., June 20, 2008 -- The old trick, practiced by schoolboys everywhere, of concentrating a beam of sunlight through a magnifying lens to ignite paper -- or an unfortunate ant -- has been given a new twist. By using a microscopic plastic bead in place of the lens and light from a powerful laser instead of the sun, engineers were able burn ultrasmall patterns onto a blank microchip.

The technique, which creates lines and dots that are 1000 times narrower than a human hair, could be used to create the tiny features needed on new generations of ever-smaller microchips. It may may also enable the creation of biological computers as well as micromachines with applications in medicine, optical communications, computing and sensor technologies.

Princeton University mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor Craig Arnold and graduate student Euan McLeod created the technique, which involves floating the microscopic plastic bead in water to focus light from a powerful laser for patterning the designs.
A technique developed by Princeton engineers allows the easy creation of nanoscale patterns on uneven surfaces and without the normal requirements of a vibration and oxygen-free environment. The black bar next to the Princeton shield is 2-µm long. (Image courtesy Nature Nanotechnology/Princeton University)
While others have passed laser light through various microscopic objects to pattern surfaces, they have struggled to maintain a consistent distance between the bead and the surface of the microchip. If this distance changes, the laser light is focused in different ways across the surface and the resulting pattern is inconsistent. Arnold and McLeod established an innovative way to ensure that the bead is always the same distance from the microchip, which allows them to draw on the surface with high levels of precision.

"One of the biggest challenges in probe-based nanopatterning is regulating the distance between your probe and the surface of the microchip," said Arnold. "We used a special laser to trap the bead and keep it close to the surface without touching it."

The researchers used the technique to "draw" features that were about 100 nanometers (a billionth of a centimeter) in size.

The key innovation is the use of a second, highly focused laser, which points directly down onto the bead. This intense light exerts a physical force on the bead, trapping it in the beam and pushing it down toward the surface. The surface pushes back with a constant force, and the bead settles at a height that balances the opposing forces. The original laser is then pulsed at the bead, which focuses the light to "zap" the surface directly below. By moving the bead along a computer controlled trajectory while repeating the laser pulse, a desired pattern is created.

The method offers particular advantages on curved or irregular surfaces because the bead tracks the surface, moving up when there is a bump and dropping when it moves over a dip. While other fabrication techniques, such as electron-beam lithography, can also be used to pattern uneven surfaces, they are extremely expensive and must be performed in a vibration- and oxygen-free environment. The new Princeton technique can be performed in a regular environment, making it accessible for use with biological materials and other systems that require the presence of oxygen.

"The technique provides a very interesting new capability to expand laser-assisted nanofabrication without involving moving mechanical parts and related hardware complications," said Costas Grigoropoulos, mechanical engineering professor at University of California-Berkeley. "I do expect that this novel technique will advance nanopatterning since it offers an elegant and highly effective means for parallel, optically driven and controlled nanofabrication."

In addition to burning away parts of a chip, Arnold and McLeod's method has the potential to deposit materials on surfaces, rather like gold-plating. This could provide a new means of creating 3-D structures, including miniscule guides that manipulate light and nanoscale electromechanical devices. Such devices have many potential uses in ultrasmall sensor systems and low-power computer processors.

"In the future, we imagine the use of multiple beads of different shapes and sizes -- in essence a nanopatterning toolkit -- for researchers to pick and choose during the course of fabrication," said Arnold. He and McLeod are currently working to pattern a surface using an array of many beads moving in parallel, each trapped and controlled by a different laser beam.

The research was supported by Princeton University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The findings were reported online June 8 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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1. A bundle of light rays that may be parallel, converging or diverging. 2. A concentrated, unidirectional stream of particles. 3. A concentrated, unidirectional flow of electromagnetic waves.
A transparent optical component consisting of one or more pieces of optical glass with surfaces so curved (usually spherical) that they serve to converge or diverge the transmitted rays from an object, thus forming a real or virtual image of that object.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
Characteristic of an object so small in size or so fine in structure that it cannot be seen by the unaided eye. A microscopic object may be rendered visible when examined under a microscope.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
A device that determines the lens shape in the cutting or edging phase of fabrication. It also is used to denote the arrangement of markings on a reticle.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
1. A generic term for detector. 2. A complete optical/mechanical/electronic system that contains some form of radiation detector.
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