By Laura Shin
Posting in Design
The breakthrough could pave the way for quantum computers that could function on a nano scale and would be much faster than computers today.
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.”
Feb 20, 2012
The Times quote "... make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly ... undermining modern data-scrambling systems" is alarmist. If encrypted code can be factored more easily, that simply means keys will need to grow accordingly and encryption will also operate that much faster. It will be feasible, then, to encrypt everything. The transmission of information will still be the bottleneck.
This seems to be more of a proof of principle rather than an initial prototype that now needs to be manufactured. From a few minutes of googling and reading (and watching the included video) I see "...method of manipulating at the atomic scale can form the basis for quantum computers, machines that use the effects of quantum mechanics, specifically the [b]spin of electrons around an atom[/b], to represent digital information." I'm guessing it's the eventual using of the electrons of the atom in question that will represent the data written and stored that defines this "single" atom as a transistor. At this scale "components" seem more defined by function than form. Consider that an atom isn't a single object but composed of many many many subatomic components and maybe someday will count for a number of components within a device while remaining just a "single" atom. Imagine when we can incorporate all the subatomic structures and energies within an atom into our devices. Obviously a single atom is just an element and by itself can't do anything other then just be that element in relationship with the environment around it. When the atom can be placed very precisely, that placement in itself is information, structure, and organization. Think about it some more and lighten up a bit.
At this point, its a toy, kind of like the itty-bitty motor they made. You make these things by moving atoms around. Unless they make some form of lithography to generate the "chip" it would take years to make just a single chip of any serious power. The other problem is you still have to deal with the interference factors if the atoms are too close. The tunneling problems if the wires are too thin, etc. The next "REAL" advance I see is some form of 3d Lithography that will allow more efficient circuits be built in a cube form vs the almost 100% flat form we have now.
Transistor from a single atom? Shin - didn't you read what you wrote? What about all the other stuff that had to be added to make a the phosphorus atom a functioning transistor? The phosphorus atom might be the single critical component in the transistor, but it would not function without it's silicon bed of many silicon atoms. Thus the phosphorus atom by itself if does not represent a functioning freestanding transistor "made of one atom." Reporters should really take more logic classes and focus on greater accuracy in their communication skills.
Hi dduggerbiocepts, I stated that it was embedded in its silicon bed. If you want more details on exactly how it works, the SF Chron/Bloomberg story, which is titled "Transistor Made Using a Single Atom May Help Beat Moore's Law" states, "The atom was etched into a silicon bed with 'gates' to control electrical flow and metallic contacts to apply voltage." The Times story, which is titled "Physicists Create a Working Transistor From a Single Atom," gives some background on recent advances that led up to this one: "There have been a series of recent technical advances that suggest that engineers will not hit a wall ending the advance in computer performance any time soon. In January, the Purdue and New South Wales researchers reported in the journal Science that they were able to create silicon nanowires that were just a single atom thick and four atoms wide by assembling thin strands of phosphorus atoms. Combining the two advances indicates that they have made progress at assembling the basic building blocks of a new ultra-small generation of nanoelectronics that would be assembled from the bottom up." Laura