For years, we marveled and joked about how computers kept getting faster and more powerful, but that progress has slowed down recently. That’s not for a lack of desire, but because of a basic manufacturing problem. Microchips need to get progressively smaller, but those smaller chips need to produce the same, or more, power than the ones currently in use. However, after a point, it becomes too expensive to viably produce smaller chips.

To get an idea of how small the lines engraved on the microchips need to be, the problem manufacturers have been struggling with is making features smaller than 22 nanometers (billionths of a meter), quickly and inexpensively.

But a team of researchers based at MIT and in Chicago, has struck on a process that might be able to restart the race to ever-smaller microchips. The process is pretty technical, but the result is that it can make incredibly thin lines, the secret to smaller microchips.

Unlike previous methods for making finer lines on chips, which required extreme ultraviolet optics and other expensive technologies, this one uses the current lithographic process for creating chips and adds one simple step that is already well understood by the microchip manufacturing industry.

By combining several methods already in use, manufacturers should be able to make smaller microchips and move us forward toward faster computers.

With the new method, says Professor Karen Gleason of MIT, one of the designers of the technology, it would not be necessary to change all the equipment currently used to create microchips, thereby avoiding another expense. And all the materials used for the new technology are well known in the industry.

“Being able to create sub-10-nanometer features with polymers is major progress in the area of nanofabrication,” said Joerg Lahann, a professor at the University of Michigan who was not involved with the work. “The quality and robustness of this process will open an entire new area of applications, from nanopatterning to nanotribology.”

Nanofabrication is certainly going to play a big role in the future of production, whether the products produced are electronics or other machines. As scientists develop better understandings of how materials work at such small scales, they can develop better ways to make machines at these scales as well.