Is the future of silicon chips something called “SemiSynBio” ? Researchers aim to find out. 

The semiconductor chips of the future may very well have a biological connection, and RTP-based Semiconductor Research Corporation is funneling $2.25 million into work at six universities to examine possibilities of hybrid bio-semiconductors. 

Among the universities are Georgia Tech and MIT.

“Living cells can offer ground-breaking solutions to some hard problems faced by the semiconductor industry because they solved similar problems more than a billion years ago,” said Professor Rahul Sarpeshkar of MIT about the project. “Controlled chemical reactions and molecular flows in cells are the ultimate miniaturization of electronics to the atomic and molecular scale.”

This emerging chip technology is called semiconductor synthetic biology, or SSB.

Here’s how EE Times describes the potential of the technology:

“Marrying two different electron flows, biology’s with electronics’, could bring on the next revolution of small and power-efficient processors.”

In an interview with EE Times, Sarpeshkar  used the term “SemiSynBio” to describe the process.

“The SemiSynBio program is about bringing electronics and biochemistry together,” Sarpeshkar explained.  ”Semiconductors are about the long-range motion of electrons in wires, and bio-chemistry is about the short-range motion of electrons between molecules in chemical reactions. So when semiconductors get all the way to the bottom of the size scale, they have to deal with chemistry, and that’s what living cells do best.”

Non-Traditional Thinking

“The role of the SSB program is to stimulate non-traditional thinking about the issues facing the semiconductor industry, and these forward-looking projects will aggressively explore new dimensions for pairing biological activities and semiconductors to benefit society,” said Dr. Steven Hillenius, executive director for SRC’s Global Research Collaboration. “We intend to seek new collaborative initiatives with the National Science Foundation and other agencies as part of the SSB program with the goal of producing disruptive information technologies for the future.”

Other universities in the project are the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Yale, Brigham Young and the University of Washington.

Initial areas of focus will include, as stated by SRC:

  • Cytomorphic-Semiconductor Circuit Design that applies lessons from cell biology to new chip architectures and vice versa
  • Bio-Electric Sensors, Actuators and Energy Sources dedicated to enabling hybrid semiconductor-biological systems
  • Molecular-precision Additive Fabrication that creates manufacturing processes at the few-nanometer scale that are inspired by biology

Defining the Focus Areas

SRC offered the following detailed descriptions of the three:

Cytomorphic-Semiconductor Circuit Design

Designers for semiconductor circuits and systems have begun to look to biological sciences for new approaches to analog and digital design and to circuits and system architectures, especially for minimum-energy electronic systems. The term ‘cytomorphic electronics’ refers to electronic circuits and information processing inspired by the operation of chemical circuits and information processing in cells.

Bioelectric Sensors, Actuators and Energy Sources

Biological sensors have the potential to play an important role in multi-functional semiconductor systems. SRC plans to integrate live cells with CMOS technology and thus form a hybrid bio-semiconductor system that provides high signal sensitivity and specificity at low operating energy.

Molecular-precision Additive Fabrication

As the demands continue to grow for the most exacting pattern formation for semiconductor fabrication — and feature sizes shrink to the 5 nanometer (nm) regime — molecular-based self-assembly could offer an alternative to lithographically driven manufacturing. DNA can be used as an active agent to provide information content to guide structure formation. SRC plans to pursue processes that will both improve fabrication yields and provide purification of correctly formed structures to significantly reduce the occurrence of defects in making DNA nanostructures.