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Cutting Microchips Like Cookies

Developments to Watch


WHEN HE SUGGESTED THAT THE ULTRATHIN lines on tomorrow's microchips could be stamped out "almost like they were cookies, they thought I was crazy," admits Stephen Y. Chou, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. The usual view is that future chips will require very exotic technology, such as X-ray lithography--not old-fashioned stamping.

Now, two years later, nobody's laughing. Chou's research team recently imprinted silicon wafers with circuit patterns just 0.025 micron wide--a tenth the size of the finest lines now in commercial production. And he's "quite confident" the technique can produce 0.01-micron lines--"maybe even smaller."

Etching the original circuit pattern into the stamping mold does require sophisticated electron-beam lithographic tools. The big nut that still needs cracking: A chip has many circuit layers, and each successive layer must be precisely aligned with the others. This is mainly an engineering challenge, Chou says, but it will take more money than he has left on his David & Lucile Packard Foundation fellowship. Once it's solved, Chou believes his cookie-cutter approach could dramatically reduce chipmaking costs.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


A BREAST-CANCER DIAGNOSIS almost always leads to surgery. But after that, another difficult question arises: whether to follow the surgery with hormonal treatment or chemotherapy. According to Dr. Stanley E. Shackney, a researcher at Allegheny-Singer Research Institute in Pittsburgh, doctors have difficulty predicting whether cancer will recur. Some 40% of the patients will probably remain disease-free without treatment--but many get chemotherapy anyway. Others may not respond to standard procedures but could benefit from a bone-marrow transplant.

The answer to figuring out what measures will most benefit individual patients, Shackney believes, lies in the genes of cancer cells. In a seven-year study of nearly 100 patients, he found that tumors harboring even a few cells with three or more specific cancer-related abnormalities are likely to recur.

More studies are needed to back up Shackney's findings. But the stakes are high. "About $700 million a year is spent on patients who will reap no benefits from treatment," because they are unlikely to have a recurrence, he says.EDITED BY OTIS PORT By Naomi FreundlichReturn to top


U.S. PATENT DATA ARE making their debut on the World Wide Web--at bargain rates. The full text of patents has long been available from such online services as Lexis/Nexis, owned by Britain's Reed Elsevier, and the Dialog division of Knight-Ridder Inc. But these databases are housed on mainframe computers not connected to the Internet, and searching them can cost more than $100 an hour. The cheaper, Web-based offerings are from France Telecom's Questel-Orbit Inc. in McLean, Va., and from the Chemical Abstracts Service of the American Chemical Society in Columbus, Ohio.

For Questel-Orbit's QPAT-US, the first password runs $1,995. That allows unlimited access for a year to all 1.8 million U.S. patents issued in the past 20 years. Additional passwords may be purchased at substantial discounts. The Chemical Abstracts Service's Chemical Patents Plus--which despite its name, includes all U.S. patents--doesn't carry an up-front charge. And it allows free searches back to 1974. But getting the patent number and front page costs $1.25. Downloading the full text is $3.75.

The newcomers' Web offerings aren't as comprehensive as the full-priced services. For instance, Lexis/Nexis constantly updates a patent's assignee. Still, they should find a sizable niche.EDITED BY OTIS PORT By Peter CoyReturn to top

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