Clearly there is a lot to gain at the intersection of biology and engineering. Earlier I have written about a skyscraper inspired by a flower and an express train modelled after a shark. Now nature is being imitated in the development of the next generation of microchips. IBM researcher Dan Edelstein has headed a project where vacuum is used as insulation between copper wires in semiconductors. The advantages are improved performance and decreased energy consumption and the chip is now being tested. It is not expected to be in our computers until 2009 but Edelstein believes that other insulating techniques will be abandoned in the future.
The manufacturing process, however, was an obstacle. Inserting the minuscule vacuum gaps between the wires is very difficult - and this is where nature comes in. While working with the project Edelstein read papers on self-assembling molecules published by Chuck Black, another IBM researcher. It was a different field but he saw the possibility it provided. This was the input they needed to come up with a manufacturing method: The chips are put together with a technique that is a synthetic imitation of how seashells, dental enamel or snowflakes grow molecule by molecule.
The idea of vacuum insulation combined with the concept of self-assembling molecules is an excellent example of intersectional innovation. But Edelstein himself also exemplifies the correspondence between quantity of ideas and successful innovation that is described in The Medici Effect; ten years ago he made other groundbreaking microchip improvements that made computers smaller and faster and he has registered 76 American patents. Judging from the vacuum microchip development it seems that it is natural for him look for solutions at intersections of fields and his achievements support the claim that this approach makes it easier to be innovative.