Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Wednesdays.Polymer chemistry may one day revolutionize the way silicon chip circuitry is produced, bringing computer capacity and speed to new heights.

As far-fetched as the idea may seem initially, the research behind the concept is already so far along that a UNC Charlotte spin-off company, Nanoresist, is in the prototype development stage and has attracted funding interest (but not yet commitments) from a number of investors, including Intel Capital.

Ken Gonsalves, the Celanese Acetate Distinguished Professor of Polymer Chemistry at UNC Charlotte, has developed a polymer that acts as a photoresist in the creation of circuitry on a silicon wafer. It is so energy and light sensitive that circuitry can be created with electron beams, extreme UV light or x-rays that are one nanometer wide. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; hence, the term ‘nanoresist.’

“We can create a billion-plus transistors on a wafer to improve the speed and memory of the next generation of processors,” Gonsalves says. “It increases what a computer can do significantly. It will have a direct impact on your PC and your laptop.”

Mark Wdowik, director of UNC Charlotte’s the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), agrees.

“Once the door is opened, all of us will be able to do things with our computers we couldn’t do before,” he says. “Performance will increase–by magnitudes.”

Ultimately, Nanoresist will patent and manufacture the liquid polymer and then sell it to chip manufacturers. A polymer is simply a large molecule that has particular properties because of its high molecular weight. One common usage is to coat fibers in the textile industry.

But, says Gonsalves, “Textiles are dying. The future for polymers is in biotech and optoelectronics.”

UNC Charlotte’s OTT efforts a big attraction

Gonsalves came to UNC Charlotte in January 2001 and has begun there the Center for Polymer and Nanotechnology Research. He started Nanoresist in June 2001.

Converting his scientific research into applied technology was a major reason Gonsalves came to UNC Charlotte after 11 years at the University of Connecticut, where he conducted much of his research through NSF and DARPA grants.

“I had gotten to the end of the line academically, and I wanted to take my science out of the lab and into the market,” he says. “UConn was not interested in technology transfer, and here, the OTT is very active. It made it very positive to move here.”

Plus, Gonsalves admits, the weather is much better. He spent many years in the Northeast, earning his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and conducting post-doctoral work at MIT. Before his years at UConn, he taught at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

$1 billion market

Gonsalves is hoping to tap into what he says is a potential $1 billion market. But first he has to prove his process is viable. So he’s working with Intel to create a prototype and benchmark the process. “Economic times are tough, so companies look very closely at your work,” he says. “A few years ago, they’d just write you a $5 million check — now they want actual benchmarking and scrutinize the data.”

The highly sophisticated equipment needed to pull this off is not available at UNC Charlotte. So Gonsalves and his two UNC Charlotte colleagues, M.A. Ali and Jordan Poler, are working with other institutions. They are the Center for Nanotechnology at Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico.

Gonsalves hopes to begin production in 2006 or 2007. He’s already looking at manufacturing facilities at the Microelectronics Center (MCNC) in RTP. He currently serves as the Nanoresist CEO. In about 6 to12 months, he says, he’ll decide whether to stay at the university or go full-time with the company.

E-mail: kegonsal@email.uncc.edu