in an incredible nanoengineering breakthrough, Australian and American physicists created a working transistor from a single phosphorus atom. The development could one day lead to quantum computers, which would be substantially smaller and faster than those of today.
The achievement is noteworthy for another reason: It challenges Moore's law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit will double roughly every two years. (More on that in a second.)
The physicists accomplished this feat by embedding the atom into a bed of silicon covered with a layer of hydrogen atoms. The New York Times reports, "Phosphine gas was then used to deposit a phosphorus atom at a precise location, which was then encased in further layers of silicon atoms."
The achievement, conducted by scientists at the University of New South Wales and at Purdue University, were published in Nature Nanotechnology.
Quantum computing implications
This development lays the groundwork for the creation of quantum computers, which would represent a leap in computer technology.
Contemporary computers are built on transistors that have "on" and "off" or "1" and 0" states, but quantum computers would be built on qubits, which could have more than one value simultaneously. As The New York Times states:
That might make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly than with conventional machines, thereby undermining modern data-scrambling systems that are the basis of electronic commerce and data privacy. Quantum computers might also make it possible to simulate molecular structures with great speed, an advance that holds promise for designing new drugs and other materials.
How this could challenge Moore's law
According to Moore's law, a single-atom transistor should be possible in 2020. But this development could beat that principle.
"We really decided 10 years ago to start this program to try and make single-atom devices as fast as we could, and beat that law. So here we are in 2012, and we've made a single-atom transistor roughly 8 to 10 years ahead of where the industry is going to be," said Michelle Simmons, director of ARC Center for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, which pioneered the research, in the video above.
While this was not the first single-atom transistor (the first demonstrations were done in 2002), it was the first to do so with absolute precision.
The technology is not yet anywhere near ready for commercial application, which would require the capability to manufacture chips holding billions or even trillions of transistors.
One of the biggest hurdles is the fact that this single-atom transistor must remain at negative 391 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the Times reports:
The low temperatures at which the experiment was performed led Intel scientists to express caution about the results. “It’s good science, but it’s complicated,” said Mike Mayberry, an Intel vice president who is the director of the company’s components research group. “By cooling it to very low temperatures, they’ve frozen out a lot of effects that might otherwise be there.”