Forget Microchips. Make Way for Microparticles

There’s just no end to it: Technologists in the world of electronics continuously strive to create components with enhanced capability coupled with reduced size, greater speed, and lower power consumption.

Consequently, I was very interested to hear that Professor Andre Geim and Dr Kostya Novoselov from The School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester, England, developed transistors that are a mere one atom thick and less than 50 atoms wide. Not only is that incredibly small, but the technology behind the development could create a new mega-fast microchip. Or perhaps we should call it a microparticle.

The material making this possible is graphene, a gauze of carbon atoms that looks like chicken wire. Geim and Novoselov believe this innovation will continue the miniaturisation of electronics when current silicon-based technology runs out of steam.

We all take a keen interest in watching Moore’s Law, to see if the principle that the number of transistors on, and therefore the power of ICs, doubling each year can be sustained with current silicon materials. I believe it’s fair to say that Moore’s Law is looking a tad fatigued these days.

However, graphene hasn’t always been viewed as a possible quantum leap forward from conventional silicon technology. Stability and conductive issues had to be solved.

Well, those problems were overcome, with Professor Geim successfully demonstrating for the first time that graphene remains highly stable and conductive even when it’s cut into strips only a few nanometres wide. What’s so special about this? Well the point is that all other known material, which includes silicon, oxidises and become unstable at sizes ten times larger than what graphene can be cut down to.

The point here is that scientists can produce single-electron-transistor devices exhibiting a high-quality transistor action. Indications are that graphene will provide the desired quantum leap in the size reduction of ICs. But don’t hold your breath.

According to Professor Geim, graphene-based circuits will not come of age much before 2025. Until then, silicon technology should remain dominant. But he believes graphene is probably the only viable approach when the silicon era comes to a close. In his view, graphene combines the most exciting features from carbonnanotube, single-electron, and molecular electronics.

To put the implications of this nanotechnology development into perspective, one nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre and a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometres in width. Bring on the microparticles.

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