Nanotechnology could provide computer chips thousands of times quicker than today's fastest processors according to researchers at Molecular Electronics, a US firm dedicated to researching and developing atom-sized computer components.
According to reports in Friday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Jim Tour, professor and cofounder of Molecular Electronics, says nanotechnology could change the face of computing.
If Tour's predictions are right, companies like Intel and AMD could be in for a tough battle: Tour reckons working chip prototypes could be available by mid-2001.
According to the Inquirer's report, Molecular Electronics' components will use a fraction of the power needed to run today's processor and will be smaller than a penny.
Nanotechnology deals with components that measure around one-billionth of a metre, or three to four atoms wide. Thus far the discipline has been largely confined to sci-fi dramas but according to Depak Uttamchandani, professor at the electronic and electrical engineering department of Strathclyde University, nanotechnology is far from fiction.
"Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary science where physicists, biologists and chemists work together. But there still remains an extreme gulf between what can be achieved in a lab and what is feasible in practice."
According to Uttamchandani, Tour's predictions may be bullish, but are certainly not unfounded. "I think that in the fullness of time, these claims will come to bear, it is just a matter of time and resources."
While Uttamchandani agrees that nanotechnology will have a profound effect on our lives, he does not believe it will mature into the commercial arena for at least another five years, perhaps longer.
"The whole area of nanotechnology will undoubtedly transform our lives, but [the scenario where] it will affect the Intels of this world is not going to happen anytime soon. Twelve to 18 months for a prototype is reasonable, but that's a long way from getting a commercial product out."
Uttamchandani believes commercial applications for nanotechnology could mean smaller consumer devices, including laptops, PDAs and phones that require less power, although the technology will probably be used for medical purposes initially.
"Using nanotechnology means less heat dissipation and power drain. You might see in the future for example, bio-neuro interfaces, so in the future you may be able to implant something like this in an eye. These can then be linked to the brain. Artificial limbs could also come from this technology."
But before ZDNet readers rush out looking for the latest nano-enhanced gadgetry, Uttamchandani does offer a word of caution: "One does need to balance the hype. There will inevitably be a lot of excitement about it, but we have to be realistic about what it can achieve within certain time frames. But it will change our lives. I suffer from poor eyesight, and nanotechnology may eventually help people like me."