Artist's illustration using binary numbers. Photo Credit: DARPA

In the forefront of nanotechnology development, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has acquired one of the world's finest electron beam lithography systems, one that will allow researchers to work on the sub-molecular scale.

For NASA, this means breakthroughs in miniaturization that could lead to significant reductions in mass and cost of spacecraft to look for traces of life on distant planets. For researchers, it means access to one of only three such systems in the world, and the only one in the public sector devoted to pure research for building the nano-scale devices of the future.

"We want to let researchers from universities, private industry and other government institutions know that we now have this capability and that it is available for their use," said Dr. Barbara Wilson, chief technologist for JPL.

Operated in the Microdevices Laboratory at JPL, the E- Beam lithography system provides a tool for delving into the realm of nanotechnology, where individual molecules become accessible to electronic probing.

"The E-Beam lithography system will allow researchers to work at the equivalent level of nature's biological building blocks, by allowing them to create and research technologies at the cellular and sub-cellular level," said Dr. Paul Maker, manager of the Electron Beam Lithography Laboratory at JPL. Lithography is the process of printing a pattern onto a surface, such as a silicon chip or a high-resolution film.

"The E-Beam lithography system is like a very fast, very high-resolution camera, but instead of exposing photo- sensitive film to light, a thin layer of electron-sensitive material is exposed to electrons," said Maker. "Instead of using a shutter that imprints the whole image at once, an intense electron beam focused to a tiny spot is rastered over the chip like the beam that creates the image on a television screen." Just as with photographic film, subsequent processing steps develop the image that was imprinted on the film, in this case the device structure.

JPL's new system allows users to "write" 10 times faster with a spot two times smaller than can be done with the system currently in place, installed 12 years ago. "The faster 'writing' speed means we can fabricate many more of these experimental chips, thereby reducing the time it takes to perfect a new chip design. The higher resolution translates into device designs with much finer detail, leading to smaller, more capable chips," said Maker.

NASA faces the challenge of miniaturizing all aspects of its space systems, with the ultimate goal of reducing the size and mass of instruments by orders of magnitude without sacrificing performance -- like creating an entire laboratory on a chip with the same sensitivity as the room-size version.

"Since this machine is capable of producing patterns with feature sizes on the scale of molecules," said Maker, "we can now develop miniature devices that allow us to manipulate and characterize these minute building blocks of nature, and create tools that can be used to search for the signatures of life in a controlled manner."

U.S. parties interested in using the system should send e-mail to: .

The Microdevices Laboratory is a facility operating under the umbrella of the Center for Space Microelectronics Technology. The Center for Space Microelectronics Technology, founded in 1987, develops high-risk, high-payoff concepts and devices to enable future space missions and to enhance current and planned missions. The center conducts research and development in such fields as biochemical sensors, solid-state devices, photonics, integrated microsystems and advanced computing. NASA's Office of Space Science, the Department of Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense Office and JPL funded the purchase of the new E-beam lithography system. Managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Live satellite interviews are available with Dr. Barbara Wilson, JPL's chief technologist on Wednesday, April 18. To book time for this interview, call Jack Dawson at 818-354-0040 or e-mail Jack at .

A video file with animation and B-roll will accompany this release and is scheduled to air on NASA Television on April 17, 18 and 19 at noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and midnight EDT. NASA Television is available at GE-2, Transponder 9C at 85 degrees West longitude, with vertical polarization. Frequency is on 3880.0 megahertz with audio on 6.8 megahertz.

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