The Next Little Thing

Hewlett-Packard’s nanochip is so 2015.

When I walked through the doors of HP Labs, I expected to see a giant 3-D plasma display, a retinal sign-in scanner, and a rolling robot espresso maker. But corporate research and development isn’t what it used to be. I get the espresso, but my escort from Hewlett-Packard media relations has to toss a quarter atop the office coffee machine to pay for it. Welcome to Silicon Valley circa 2005.

The tech sector’s penny-pinching ways match up nicely with the cheapo two-guys-in-a-garage vibe that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard inaugurated in 1939. Senior research fellows at HP’s cutting-edge research arm, located just outside downtown Palo Alto, Calif., get cubicles instead of offices. My tour guide makes it clear that the company only funds research it thinks will make HP money, usually in five years or less. No blue-sky projects unless they bring in the black ink.

A lot of the lab’s undertakings aim to make money by saving money for customers. My first tour stop is a typical corporate computer room filled with row after row of metal racks. The room is a prototype for a data center that allocates its computers, disk drives, and network on the fly without needing a human operator to constantly reconfigure its machines. Even the air conditioner is wired up—it only blows on computers that are running hot, to keep the electric bill down. Down the hall, other researchers have set up a pretend warehouse complete with a fake loading-dock door. The project’s goal is to reduce the cost of misplaced inventory for super-size companies like Wal-Mart. A network of RFID sensors, cameras, and an ultrasonic positioning system tracks packages and shipping pallets better and faster than humans with bar-code scanners.

Upstairs, I find Bernardo Huberman, whose book The Laws of the Web explained the behavior of Web sites and surfers with mathematical formulas. He’s now working on using market approaches to increase intra-company efficiency. One of Huberman’s goals is to optimize how employees use corporate computing resources like that server room downstairs. The idea: Have employees bid for server time out of their own budgets. The price goes up in the afternoon when everyone’s trying to get on, so workers stop running unimportant database queries during peak hours.

Clean room for cool chips

If you’re a former Unix system administrator—like, well, me—then this stuff is super cool. But still, I came here looking for flying robots. They’re showing me air conditioners, loading docks, and PowerPoint slides. But in the late afternoon, I’m suddenly jolted awake by a physical gadget straight out of the future—a working nanotech computer chip. One of the few long-term projects at HP Labs is a small nanochip fabrication setup that makes circuits one-third the size of the most advanced chips currently on the market. The nanolab is a clean-room facility, so I have to settle for pressing my nose up against the window. On the other side of the glass, a line of nano-imprinting machines, each the size of a McDonald’s fry cooker, represent smaller and smaller scales of development. At the far end of a room about a dozen feet square, a chubby lab worker in an androgynous clean-room bunny suit peers through eyepieces at the latest test run.

The technology is simple to describe, if incredibly hard to produce. Today’s microchip plants imprint circuits on coated silicon wafers by shining light through a stencil. Since circuits have now gotten smaller than the wavelength of the laser light that’s used to etch them, it’s getting very expensive to go smaller using the stencil technique. Instead of using light, HP’s nano-imprint machine stamps the circuit design by squeezing a drop of liquid into a mold, then hardening it into a grooved circular disk. After that, it’s chip manufacturing as usual—the grooves are filled with platinum to make wire circuits.

Working in miniature

The group’s ponytailed director leads me to a microscope that looks down at one of the finished chips. It’s kind of a letdown—I can’t see much, other than to verify that the chip is really, really small. Neither the director nor I want to fuss with the microscope and risk breaking the chip, so I just pull my face away and squint down with my two naked eyes. And there it is, lying at the bottom of the microscope tray: a black square with an orderly grid of wires leading into it. It’s the smallest computer chip I’ve ever seen.