Thinking Tech

How digital devices are going to get even smaller

Posting in Technology

Scientists have a found a way to transmit data on an atomic-scale. This may ultimately lead to very small digital devices.

Looks like the promise for faster and ever-tinier electronic gadgets may depend on a fortuitous quirk within graphene, a one-atom thick sheet of carbon.

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have found that by replacing the carbon atoms with silicon atoms—which are called point defects—they can transfer data on an atomic scale (meaning incredibly small) by using light and electrons.

The scientists have proven that a tiny wire made up of a pair of silicon atoms in graphene can convert light into an electronic signal and then transmit that signal. The study is published in Nature Nanotechnology.

The silicon atoms act like mini antennae that can magnify the surface plasmon of graphene. Now, a plasmon is the excitation of the electronic fluid in a conductor. Some liken this to the ripples on surface of a pond.

Co-author Juan-Carlos Idrobo, Vanderbilt University explains in a press release:

"The idea with plasmonic devices is that they can convert optical signals into electronic signals. So you could make really tiny wires, put light in one side of the wire, and that signal will be transformed into collective electron excitations known as plasmons. The plasmons will transmit the signal through the wire, come out the other side and be converted back to light."

Apparently when researchers use metal for plasmonic devices they can only size it to five or seven nanometers, and that no scientist believed anyone could get down to the size of a single atom. To be sure this experiment is a proof of concept, but that is typically the best first step.

Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure