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Nanolithography is a term used to describe a number of techniques for creating incredibly small structures. The sizes involved are on the order of tens of nanometers (nm). A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, much smaller than the width of a single human hair. The word lithography is used because the method of pattern generation is essentially the same as writing, only on a much smaller scale.
One common method of nanolithography, used particularly in the creation of microchips, is known as photolithography. This technique is a parallel method of nanolithography in which the entire surface is drawn on in a single moment. Photolithography is limited in the size it can reduce to, however, because if the wavelength of light used is made too small the lens simply absorbs the light in its entirety. This means that photolithography cannot reach the super-fine sizes of some alternate technologies.
A technology that allows for smaller sizes than photolithography is that of electron-beam lithography. Using an electron beam to draw a pattern nanometer by nanometer, incredibly small sizes (on the order of 20nm) may be achieved. Electron-beam lithography is much more expensive and time consuming than photolithography, however, making it a difficult sell for industry applications of nanolithography. Since electron-beam lithography functions more like a dot-matrix printer than a flash-photograph, a job that would take five minutes using photolithography will take upwards of five hours with electron-beam lithography.
New nanolithography technologies are constantly being researched and developed, leading to smaller and smaller possible sizes. Extreme ultraviolet lithography, for example, is capable of using light at wavelengths of 13.5nm. While hurdles still exist in this new field, it promises the possibility of sizes far below those produced by current industry standards. Other nanolithography techniques include dip-pen nanolithography, in which a small tip is used to deposit molecules on a surface. Dip-pen nanolithography can achieve very small sizes, but cannot currently go below 40nm.
Funding for nanolithography research comes from a number of places, including the private academic world, futurist companies with an eye towards next-generation nanotechnology, and established computer chip manufacturers looking to shrink their chips far below their current sizes. As interest in nanotechnology grows within industrial sectors, funding and research will no doubt expand in the field of nanolithography, leading to more adept technologies and even lower limits on size.