Scientists made the world's smallest electronic switch

Australian researchers have created a seven atom transistor that could set the pace of computing. Enter this quantum leap.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Australian scientists have built a seven-atom transistor. As the world's smallest transistor, computing power might be in for the long-awaited quantum leap. As a general rule, as transistors get smaller, computers get faster.

Transistors are the building blocks of electronics. Millions of them are packed together onto a computer chip and act as the nerve cells that amplify and switch electronic signals throughout computer chips. Normally, transistors are made with silicon and are 42 atoms across.

In this case, the researchers used an electron microscope to place seven phosphorous atoms onto a silicon surface. So when the phosphorous atoms were put into a silicon crystal, the Australian researchers were able to hand craft the world's tiniest transistor.

The atomic switch could one day lead to solid-state quantum computers. If this transistor is ever commercialized, computer chips could be made 100 times smaller than they are today.

"This is a huge technological achievement and it is a critical step to demonstrating that it is possible to build the ultimate computer - a quantum computer in silicon," lead researcher Michelle Simmons of the University of New South Wales said in a statement.

Traditional silicon computer chips follow Moore's Law, which predicts the amount a computer chip memory will double every two years. As computer chips continue to shrink, the law becomes less predictable.

A Russian-Japanese team of researchers has put Moore's Law to the test, when they announced their creation of a quantum dot amplifier. The researchers essentially made Moore's Law reach its limit because you can't make a circuit that is smaller than an atom.

Building atomic transistors isn't the only way forward. Other researchers are testing everything from chemicals to DNA, hoping their method will pave the future of the electronics industry.

Howard Katz of Johns Hopkins University is working on see-through electronics. By using sodium beta-alumina, Katz can build transistors on glass and plastic materials.

And as I wrote earlier, Lawrence Livermore National Lab researchers are using ATP powered transistors to improve human-machine communications. Cleverly, they are designing nanotube transistors after living cells.

Perhaps, the holy grail is to make a biological computer. Researchers have been trying to build computer chips out of DNA for decades. If DNA could replace silicon as computing material, you could build electronics from scratch and have them self replicate.

While all of these alternative computer chips are making baby steps in the lab, we are still waiting on them to make a quantum leap.

Related Posts on Smart Planet:

IBM targets 'DNA Transistor'; personal genetic testing for $100

ATP powered transistor could improve human-machine communication

Next generation computer chips might be made out of DNA

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards