Former U professor makes small wonder

by Melanie Evans

For Stephen Chou, former University electrical engineering professor, less is better.
Chou and his 16-member Nano Structures Laboratory pioneered a new manufacturing process that fits more information into less space. The research has received national attention after it was publicized in December.
Now, everyone from IBM to the U.S. Department of Defense is watching the project to see how the technology will work.
The technology, called nano imprint lithography, impresses a pattern onto softened polymers to form a mold. The mold is then stamped repeatedly onto silicon, a material used to create computer chips and CDs.
The process can produce smaller CDs — the size of a penny — that store 25 times the information an ordinary disk holds. Where a current disk can retain 10 minutes of video, Chou’s nano-CD can hold up to five hours.
With potential applications in everything from the music industry to medicine, the technique “jumps ahead of the curve” in information storage technology, said Peter Krauss, a lead engineer with the project and former co-worker with Chou.
Through the natural evolution of technology, the amount of information saved per square inch of disk space grows by 60 percent annually, said Krauss. Nano Structure’s lithographic method increases storage by 400 percent.
The simple replication process keeps costs low as well, Chou said. Although the master copy cost $100,000, he estimates duplicates could cost as little as one dollar.
But the development of the technique might cost the University more than money.
The corporate excitement surrounding the nano-CD has also made Chou a hot commodity. Chou was recruited by Princeton University and eventually accepted a similar position at the Ivy league school. On Jan. 1 he moved his $1.5 billion laboratory to the New Jersey college.
He said the school’s prestige and the chance to build a program from the ground up was enticement enough for him to move.
Mostafa Kaveh, head of the electrical and computer engineering department, said the professor’s move is a big loss to the department.
However, he added that the University is filing a patent on the new process and will retain certain rights to its production.
The technique continues the trend of reduction in electrical engineering that began with micro-processing. The step from “micro” to “nano” technology — Latin for one millionth and one billionth, respectively — is considered the next step in reduction.
“Electronic features are all reducing,” said Kaveh. “We are moving from micro to nano. Its a natural progression.”
The Nano Structure team’s breakthrough came early in 1997 at the University, following over three years of research. The lab team went back to the basics to make the breakthrough, Chou said.
Current methods that use lasers and X-rays saturated data storage capacity, he said. The new system reverts to an industrial-style mechanical manufacturing, stamping out copies of an original in silicon.
“The current technology that fabricates integrated circuits reached its intrinsic limit, so we had to rely on different physical principles to break the barrier,” Chou said.