An Overview of Atom Chip Technology

This article considers the latest understandings and advances concerning atom chips in order to provide an overview of this technology. 

Image Credit: Tasha Vector/

Atoms are the fundamental constituents of all substances. They contain a positively charged nucleus, and their outside limits are defined by electron clouds. They are electrically neutral. The amount of electrons in a molecule determines its chemical characteristics. All of them have been researched and utilized by humans for a long time.

Yet we are just now discovering a completely new method of talking with atoms, resulting in four Nobel Awards in 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2012. The atom chip is one of the chapters in this new lexicon, which translates from human to atom language. This voyage might lead to fresh insights into quantum theory’s underpinnings as well as a slew of technological applications.

Without miniaturization, many of today’s electrical technologies would be unimaginable. The atom chip’s core concept is to use a solid-state device to generate optical, magnetic, and electric fields that can be used to capture, control, and detect atoms floating a few millimeters outside the device under a very high vacuum.

As a result, we’re applying similar technology to today’s semiconducting chips; however, our approach is based on atoms hanging outside the solid device, rather than electrons flowing within it (and hence prone to lack of isolation).

Aiming for Atoms: The Science of Making Smaller Chips

In the realm of processors, nothing occurs instantaneously, and nothing happens without a supply of electrical energy. Larger components take longer to change state, signals take relatively more time, and moving electricity around the CPU requires more energy. Without attempting to be obtuse, larger components occupy more physical space, resulting in larger chips.

The process node is a term used in the microchip industry to describe the size. Although the decrease in process node is just partly the reason for the more modern design’s physical lower size and increased transistor count, it is a major one. The advantages of a smaller process node include smaller devices with more transistors that can shift quicker, allowing us to do more computations per second and less energy wasted as heat.

Further Reading: Single-Chip Incorporation of Multiple Material Devices

There is a method called photolithography, in which light is sent through a photomask, which restricts light in certain parts while allowing it to flow through in others. The light is then tightly concentrated onto a tiny region where it passes through, and it interacts with a specific layer employed in the chip’s production, assisting in the layout of the different sections. 

Because waves have such a wide variety of wavelengths, we group them and call them a spectrum. Light is just a small fraction of the spectrum. For defining lengths so tiny, scientists and researchers prefer to use a slightly different measure called nanometers, or “nm” for short. We may state that light ranges from 380 nm to 750 nm if we look at the spectrum.

UV begins about 380 nm (where light ends) and decreases down to roughly 10 nm on the spectrum chart. Manufacturers like Intel, TSMC, and Global Foundries employ a form of electromagnetic radiation termed EUV (extreme UV), which has a wavelength of roughly 190 nm.

This enables the numerous components to be packed in closer together, reducing the chip’s total size. TSMC has been hard at work on lower nodes (7nm, 5nm, and shortly 3nm), producing processors for Apple, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Nvidia, and AMD, among others. Some of the tiniest features are just 6 nm wide at this scale of manufacture (the majority, though, are much bigger than this). The silicon atoms themselves are very nearly 0.1 nm in diameter, giving you an idea of how tiny 6 nm is.

Aiming for Atoms is Difficult

Apart from the point that chipmakers are striving for characteristics that are just a few atoms broad, EUV photolithography has caused a slew of technical and manufacturing challenges. The higher the energy conveyed by an electromagnetic wave, the greater the danger of impairment to the chip being made; especially small-scale manufacturing is also particularly susceptible to adulteration and material flaws.

Other considerations, including diffraction restrictions and random noise (natural fluctuations in where the EUV wave’s energy is deposited in the chip layer), act against the goal of generating perfect semiconductors.

Future Prospect

If all of this seems a little doom and gloom, keep in mind that the near future appears to be bright. In terms of volume and income, Samsung and TSMC have been operating their 7 nm manufacturing lines at a good profit for a while now, and chip designers are also planning the utilize several nodes in their products.

Interview – Fast Scanning Chip Calorimetry: Possibilities and Applications

Does this imply that a 5 nm Intel will be available by 2025? Yes, they are most likely making progress on their way back despite their stumbling block with 10 nm. Samsung and TSMC have been pushing forward with their 5 nm and beyond manufacturing, so the future of CPUs seems bright.

Future chips will be smaller and quicker, using less energy while delivering more performance. They’ll pave the way for completely driverless vehicles, wearables with the power and battery capacity of today’s smartphones, and gaming visuals that rival those seen in multibillion-dollar blockbusters from a decade ago. Because the future is little, the future is brilliant.

References and Further Reading

Henkel, Carsten, and Ron Folman. “Internal decoherence in nano-object interferometry due to phonons.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2112.01263 (2021).

Japha, Y. “Unified model of matter-wave-packet evolution and application to spatial coherence of atom interferometers.” Physical Review A 104.5 (2021): 053310.

Keil, Mark, et al. “Stern-Gerlach Interferometry with the Atom Chip.” Molecular Beams in Physics and Chemistry (2021): 263-301.

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