DNA, the genetic material of life, may help engineers build faster, cheaper computer chips by forming specific shapes through a process reminiscent of the ancient art of paper folding, researchers report.
“We would like to use DNA’s very small size, base-pairing capabilities and ability to self-assemble, and direct it to make nanoscale structures that could be used for electronics,” said Adam T Woolley, professor of chemistry at Brigham Young University (BYU).
The smallest features on chips currently produced by electronics manufacturers are 14 nanometers wide.
That is more than 10 times larger than the diameter of single-stranded DNA, meaning that this genetic material could form the basis for smaller-scale chips.
“The problem, however, is that DNA does not conduct electricity very well. So we use the DNA as a scaffold and then assemble other materials on the DNA to form electronics,” Woolley explained.
To design computer chips similar in function to those that Silicon Valley churns out, Woolley, in collaboration with Robert C Davis and John N. Harb at Brigham Young University, is building on other groups’ prior work on DNA origami and DNA nanofabrication.
Kenneth Lee, an undergraduate who works with Woolley, has built a 3D, tube-shaped DNA origami structure that sticks up like a smokestack from substrates such as silicon that will form the bottom layer of their chip.
The researchers’ ultimate goal is to place such tubes, and other DNA origami structures, at particular sites on the substrate.
In essence, the DNA structures serve as girders on which to build an integrated circuit.
“Nature works on a large scale and it is really good at assembling things reliably and efficiently. If that could be applied in making circuits for computers, there’s potential for huge cost savings,” the authors noted.
The researchers presented their work at the national meeting and exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Diego, California, on Sunday.