As chip designs shrink, following Moore's Law of ever smaller and more powerful microchips, it gets hard for developers to see what is happening.
The new technique makes an electron microscope much more powerful, and lets developers look at the atomic structures and properties of the materials used, IBM said in a statement yesterday.
Until now, lens imperfections or "aberrations" in electron microscopes have led to blurred images. IBM and Nion have therefore developed a way of correcting the aberrations using seven sets of lenses connected to a computer.
After the correction, the microscope can make an electron beam that is only three billionths of an inch wide, which is smaller than a hydrogen atom.
The beam can show clear images of the atomic structure of a semiconductor or insulating material and spot any defects, such as missing or extra atoms, according to IBM. With that knowledge, scientists can better evaluate the properties of a material and work on ways to improve it.
Understanding how atoms interact with one another could also be useful in developing the conditions for future chips that can self-assemble, IBM said.