Nanotechnology Researchers Replace Solder with Water

Advanced research is often really interesting, and often not-so-much. For me, that’s especially true with nanotechnology. Some projects have potential to change things. Others seem like pipe dreams that will take decades to emerge, if they ever advance toward the mainstream.

A new study on self-assembling electronics seems to fit in the middle. Researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands believe they can replace solder with water. It’s quite intriguing, but it also sounds like its reality may be some time away.

Dutch researchers folded flat sheets of silicon and silicon nitride into various shapes. They then added water to get the sheets to expand into 3-D structures that filled a small space with electrical components. That’s a significant change from similar research in the 1990s, when researchers used solder to unfold flat sheets in their attempt to cram even more computing power into shrinking electronic devices. The surface tension of molten solder caused silicon to create shapes that fit into tight spaces.

Folded components have enthralled researchers for a while. In 2003, an MIT optical systems group demonstrated that it would be possible to fold many wires encased in a flexible polymer in order to transform a long 2-D chip into a dense 3-D structure. Harvard researchers used the origami-like concept to build a light detector a few years ago. Elsewhere, the concepts have been explored for medical applications.

It will be intriguing to see if these concepts ever join through-silicon vias and other 3-D packaging technologies that are finally moving into the mainstream after years of research. Sometimes, research projects eventually fly. Other times, they fold.

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