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A Very Small Soldering Iron

How do scientist fix nano-sized computer problems?

macro image of a computer circuit

Photo: Mark Menzies

A soldering iron that small is very useful when it comes to doing repairs on special microchips used in supercomputers.

Nanotechnology is all the rage these days.

Scientists are working on everything from nano-sized medications that target cancer cells, to particles that can clear polluted groundwater, but what good is a tiny soldering iron that’s 100 times narrower than a human hair?

According to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a soldering iron that small is very useful when it comes to doing repairs on special microchips used in supercomputers. Regular microchips are basically a dime a dozen. When they break or wear out, it usually makes sense to throw them away. However, supercomputer microchips are much more expensive, so when they break it’s best to try to repair them.

That’s where a soldering iron that’s only fifty atoms across at the tip comes in handy. Nano soldering irons work just like regular-sized soldering irons. When the tip is cold, engineers use it to inspect a malfunctioning superchip’s circuits to see which ones are damaged. Send an electrical current through the iron’s tip to heat it up, deposit tiny drops of melted metal on the broken circuits to wire them up and presto! Instead of throwing away a $20,000 microchip you’ve put it back in action.

Today, microchip manufacturing plants are Wal-Mart sized behemoths. Researchers hope that some day, nano-sized soldering irons and other very small scale machines will help shrink the entire microchip manufacturing process.

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