Hitachi set to plant its own ‘nanostamp’ on the medical market

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TOKYO, Dec. 30, 2003 — Hitachi’s Advanced Research Laboratory (ARL) is getting ready to commercialize a low-cost “nanostamp” technology for medical applications.

Hitachi’s process creates “nanopillars” with extremely high aspect ratios (narrow relative to height), a feature that the company believes will prove useful for biochips and other applications, according to Akihiro Miyauchi, a senior researcher at Hitachi.

The technology uses a silicon “stamp” that presses onto a polystyrene-based polymer film, producing nanopillars that are extremely long and thin, about 3 microns in height. Right now, ARL is concentrating on making two versions of the nanopillars: one that is 250 nanometers in diameter and another that’s 80 nanometers.

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“With the 80-nanometer-diameter nanopillars, we are already producing pillars that are smaller than the current (90 nanometer) semiconductor process node by Intel or Fujitsu, for example, but we can easily go smaller because we have a very simple and very cheap process; it’s just press and release,” Miyauchi said.

He did not say how much smaller ARL plans to make the nanopillars, but he did say the process already works out to be much more cost-effective than semiconductor lithography processes. “Our process doesn’t need lithography equipment or dry etching machines and we avoid the high fixed costs of these processes. Our process is about 90 percent cheaper than a semiconductor process might be.”

Neil Gordon, a partner at nanotech consultancy Sygertech and president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, said that with a new generation of highly specialized sub-100-nanometer devices on the radar screen, there is increasing interest in new techniques for producing unique nanopatterns. He said Hitachi’s technology could be “very interesting for certain applications such as ultrasensitive detectors.”

Researchers and ventures in the United States and Europe are pushing ahead with their own nanostamping technologies, including the Austin, Texas-based startup Molecular Imprints Inc. and Nanonex Inc. in Monmouth Junction, N.J.

Hitachi’s key advantage is the high aspect ratios, which hit about 12:1 for the 250 nanometer pillars and 40:1 for the 80 nanometer ones. These ratios are useful for ARL’s first major target application, biochips used in drug discovery.

Miyauchi said that the only other technology that comes close to Hitachi’s in terms of size is Princeton University’s Laser-Assisted Direct Imprint technique, which can produce imprinted holes down to 6 nanometers.

Princeton, he said, is champion when it comes to size, but “the unique point about our method is the aspect ratio.”

Hitachi is not alone in developing very high-aspect ratio and market-ready process, according to Lars Samuelson, leader of the Nanometer Consortium at Lund University in Sweden. Lund’s department recently developed techniques to direct self-assembly of nanowhiskers, he said.

This nano-imprint lithography (NIL) technique can make stamps with features of less than 20 nanometers in diameter, and “maybe close to 1:100 in aspect ratio or even larger when optimized,” Samuelson said.

Lund is partnering with Obducat AB in Sweden, to sell NIL machines commercially.

Hitachi, meanwhile, is also gearing up for commercialization. Having developed the production technology, Hitachi has created a 15-member nanotechnology business enhancement office. Hiroshi Sonoda, senior engineer at Hitachi’s nanotechnology planning office, said there is a $35 million market for the application in Japan alone after full-scale production. Hitachi said it plans to start shipping samples in the near future.

Gordon said that development of low-cost products is key to applications like disposable medical tests. Hitachi, being a big multinational company, can afford to subsidize its nanopatterning products indefinitely, he said, giving the company “a considerable competitive advantage over dedicated nano-imprint lithography vendors.”


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