Ithaca, N.Y. — Some of the most advanced computer chips being made today carry circuits about two microns wide - roughly the size of the hair on a ladybug's foot. This is small, yes, but not small enough to raise even an eyebrow on Edward Wolf and his colleagues at Cornell University.
Dr. Wolf is director of a national research facility here designed to explore the world of the small - a mysterious, unfathomable realm that may yield some of tomorrow's most important technologies.
Consider that scientists at the National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures here already have:
* Created the world's smallest artifact, a series of letters so tiny that the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could printed on a postage stamp.
* Built transistors small enough that 15 of them could perch atop a human hair.
* Devised a way to detect changes in the earth's magnetic field produced by the wink of an eye.
These may seem minute milestones, but researchers have big ambitions for what this and other work might lead to in the future. The whole field of microscience has become one of the hottest areas of research. Consider electronics. In the 1960s, the white-robed priests of high technology managed to shoehorn a few dozen transistors on a computer chip. Today they are cramming more than 260,000 on a sliver of silicon - a shrinking act that has spawned everything from high-speed computers to electronic watches.
But these wafers are clumsily slow and awkwardly large compared with what will be needed for tomorrow's supercomputers, artificial intelligence systems, and other electronic tools. By the close of this decade, logic chips that will carry 5 million transistors on a single chip should be tumbling off production lines.
The multimillion-dollar questions for American researchers are how to build such tiny devices - preferably ahead of the Japanese - and how to understand what happens to them once they are made. This is the domain researchers here at Cornell are rummaging around in. At the same time, they are working on other ideas at the edge of the infinitesimal that will impact fields ranging from physics to chemistry - or end up as crumbled balls of paper on the floor.
Much of the research here, in other words, is decidedly basic - as much an act of faith as anything else. Ideas, if they take shape as products at all, may not do so for 10 years.
The national submicron facility was launched with backing from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1977. Two years ago those probing the universe of the peewee moved into a new building on this upstate New York campus. Current funding for projects comes from the NSF ($1.6 million a year) and private industry (about $600,000).
The two-story lab is a testament to the difficulties of toiling in dimensions smaller than one micron - about 1 /100 the diameter of a human hair. Researchers have to fight the problems of microscopic contaminants. In this fastidious world , a speck of dust looms like a mountain, a vibration from a dropped shoe like an earthquake.
Researchers wear booties, smocks, and bonnets, all of which are laundered with special detergent to avoid problems with soap residues. Air is recirculated in rooms twice a minute. Some work areas, encased in vibration-absorbing rubber, rest on three-foot-thick slabs of concrete. The building itself sits on specially compacted earth.
At present, some 200 scientists from Cornell and other universities and industry are working on 76 research projects here. A key thrust, of course, is to delve into some of the new tools that will fashion tomorrow's Lilliputian circuits. One group, for instance, is working ''at or near ultimate limit of miniaturization'' using electron beams to etch tiny circuits.
''E-beam'' fabrication, a technique being developed by scientists around the world, can create circuits at much smaller dimensions than the time-honored method of photolithography, which uses light to print circuit patterns. Researchers here want to see how far the technology can be pushed. Cornell physicist Michael Isaacson has used a ''pen'' of high-energy electrons to draw a line one-half a nanometer wide (there are roughly 1 billion nanometers in a yard). It is with this process he created the ''world's smallest artifact.''
Whether any of this ultimately will lead to smaller and faster computers remains to be seen. But scientists at least want to solve a few riddles about the limits of certain tools. It's known, for example, that a wire can be made so thin that it can no longer conduct electricity. Its walls clog the flow of electrons. But, the scientists ask, are there materials that will go beyond these limits?
''We are getting to the point where the technology is beginning to outstrip science in this area,'' says Dr. Isaacson. ''We can make structures to work at these dimensions, but we don't always understand why or how they work. It is a whole new world.''
Other researchers are trying to create substances that will perform entirely new tricks. By combining aluminum and gallium atoms, scientists may come up the recipe for cheaper, more versatile lasers for use in fiber-optic communication systems among, other things.
Another focus: understanding better what happens to materials at ultrahigh pressures. Dr. Arthur Ruoff, head of Cornell's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is working with a team trying to squeeze gases to see if they can be turned into superconducting metals.
Working at these diminutive dimensions, pressures can be created nearing those at the center of the earth. So far researchers have put the big squeeze only on xenon. The ultimate goal is to create metallic hydrogen. If hydrogen will stay solid when the pressure is relieved, it could be used to produce superefficient electrical transmission lines or to fuel rockets and aircraft.
''The submicron domain does have high potential for a lot of new discoveries, '' says Dr. Wolf, who is no newcomer to this frontier. In 1970, while at Hughes Research Laboratories, he helped etch 100,000 angels on the head of a pin. With today's tools, roughly a billion angelic inscriptions could be carved on the same pin.
Big advances remain to be made even in this tiny kingdom.