Scientists at UCSB’s Materials Research Laboratory have discovered an innovative process capable of producing smaller, faster and more efficient computer processors.

An interdisciplinary team led by materials professor Craig Hawker has developed a method to chemically assemble nanoscale patterns on silicon wafers, which then allows for the construction of computer chips. This new development is called Block Copolymer Lithography.

BCL is comparable to photolithography – a process by which a beam of light draws patterns on a silicon wafer, but that is limited by the wavelength of the light used.

According to Hawker, a former IBM employee and current Director of the Materials Research Laboratory, this development has the ability to produce superior computer processors that will make computers twice as efficient.

“If you can shrink all these things down, you get both,” Hawker said. “You get power and energy efficiency in one package.”

Hawker said BCL imitates nature by making polymer molecules assemble themselves in a similar manner to the natural assembly of proteins. This makes the process much less time-intensive.

“It essentially relies on a natural self-assembly process,” Hawker said. “Just like proteins in the body, these molecules come together and self-assemble into a pattern. And so we use that pattern as our lithographic tool, to make patterns on the silicon wafer.”

Hawker said since the BCL process incorporates materials found in shampoos and other consumer goods to drive down materials costs, BCL is cheap and efficient compared to PL.

“[BCL] is very low cost – we build all of the information right into the molecules, they know how to self-assemble,” Hawker said, “The big cost currently is photolithography.”

According to chemical engineering and materials professor Edward Kramer – another co-author of the BCL study – the many researchers from materials and chemical engineering departments who contributed to this discovery have helped to bolster UCSB’s reputation as a research powerhouse.

“This interdisciplinary spirit is something UCSB is world-renowned for,” he said.