Single-atom transistor: The future of computing?

Earlier this week Nature Nanotechnology published a paper submitted by scientists from the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, as well as other institutions in South Korea and the United States. In it they describe how they managed to make a transistor with a single atom. How great is that?

Using a device called a scanning tunneling microscope and a process called hydrogen-resist lithography, they were able to accurately place a single phosphorus atom in a silicon lattice precisely between two silicon leads.

Once that was done, they were able to measure the electrical behavior of the atom. They succeeded in registering the source, drain and gate contacts to the atom, which are necessary in order to call the set-up a “transistor.”

I’m sure we all know that we are talking about really, really small distances here, but just to hit your brain again with the scale what we are talking about, think on this: The atomic diameter of a single phosphorus atom is 100 picometers, which is one ten-billionth of a meter. For comparison, a traditional 16-inch softball is about that small relative to our sun. So, it’s small.

Despite the theoretical possibilities for quantum computing, don’t get all excited just yet about the possibility of having single-atom transistors in the processor of your next personal computer. These guys achieved their electrical measurements when the transistor was cooled to about 2 percent of a degree above absolute zero.

So, until they can get it to work at something closer to room temperature, this technology will have to stay in the laboratory.

But it’s still pretty cool.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

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