WASHINGTON — Scientists said Thursday they have designed tiny wires, 10,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the same electrical capacity as copper, in a major step toward building smaller, more potent computers.
The advance, described in the US journal Science, shows for the first time that wires one atom tall and four atoms wide can carry a charge as well as conventional wires.
That could lead to even tinier electronic devices in the future as well as new steps toward quantum computing, an industry still in its infancy which would create powerful computers that could sift through massive amounts of data faster than current digital computers which use binary code.
"Driven by the semiconductor industry, computer chip components continuously shrink in size allowing ever smaller and more powerful computers," said researcher Michelle Simmons of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia.
"We are on the threshold of making transistors out of individual atoms. But to build a practical quantum computer we have recognized that the interconnecting wiring and circuitry also needs to shrink to the atomic scale."
Scientists were able to forge atom-sized wires in silicon using a technique called scanning tunneling microscopy, whereby they placed chains of phosphorus atoms within a silicon crystal.
"This technique not only allows us to image individual atoms but also to manipulate them and place them in position," said researcher Bent Weber, the lead author of the study.
The nano-wires they built this way ranged from 1.5 to 11 nanometers thick.
But even though the circuits were smaller, scientists observed no increased difficulty in coaxing an electric charge through them -- what has previously been considered a major obstacle to quantum computing.
In an accompanying Perspective article, David Ferry of the School of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University called the findings "good news for the semiconductor industry."