Microelectronics’ 30-year reign could be almost over

Computers with processing power more than 100,000 times greater than today’s could become a reality within the next two decades, thanks to nanotechnology, experts believe. Microchips made from silicon using lithographic manufacturing techniques are expected to last another 15 years, but beyond that nanotechnology will allow the development of computing devices manufactured at the nanometre […]

Computers with processing power more than 100,000 times greater than today’s could become a reality within the next two decades, thanks to nanotechnology, experts believe.

Microchips made from silicon using lithographic manufacturing techniques are expected to last another 15 years, but beyond that nanotechnology will allow the development of computing devices manufactured at the nanometre level, using more exotic materials. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre.

Dr Michael Forshaw, leader of the image processing group at University College London, said: `All good things must come to an end and the 30-year reign of microelectronics has probably got only another 15-20 years before it reaches an insurmountable barrier. Nanotechnology is searching for the successor to the silicon transistor.’

Experts foresee nanometric devices being built up atom-by-atom. Today scientists use atomic-force microscopes to assemble matter at the atomic level. These devices can move one atom at a time using special probes, but are too slow to make building a useful device economical.

Similarly, a cost effective production process for nano-metric microchips is yet to be fully realised, but in theory many probes could be controlled to position atoms on a larger scale.

IBM has already created an array of probes which is able to move 1,000 molecules at a time. But to become efficient, the rate of molecule movement must improve by at least a thousandfold, said Forshaw.

One device which has already been designed is a single-electron transistor, which acts as a switch for a nanotechnology computer.

The wires between each switch are designed to only carry one electron each. Such an arrangement has already been demonstrated in a laboratory using a single xenon atom.

Although scientists predict it could take 20 years to perfect devices assembled molecule by molecule, hybrid microelectronic-nanoelectronic systems could be produced within the next five years.

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