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Researchers invent nanoscale platform for atom-size electronics

Posted: 23 Feb 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:nanoscale  computer processors  transistors 

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a nanoscale one-stop platform for creating electronics at nearly the size of a single atom—which could lead to advanced forms of technologically important devices like high-density memory devices, transistors and computer processors.

This multitude of uses stems from a technique previously developed by the same team to fashion rewritable nanostructures at the interface between two insulating materials. In the Feb. 20 edition of Science, the researchers demonstrate the various applications of the process.

"We've demonstrated that we can make important technologies that are significantly smaller than existing devices and all from the same material," said Jeremy Levy, the Science paper's senior author and a professor of physics and astronomy in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences. "To sustain the development of smaller and faster computers, we will probably need to transition away from existing materials in the coming decade. The memory bits in magnetic hard drives are about as small as they can get; silicon transistors will get increasingly difficult to miniaturise. We have created advanced storage and processing capability using the same material, presenting a totally new flexibility in building electronics."

Levy and his team reported in Nature Materials in March 2008 that their process of swapping insulators and conductors works like a microscopic Etch A Sketch, the drawing toy that inspired Levy's idea. Using the sharp conducting probe of an atomic force microscope, he created wires less than 4nm wide at the interface of a crystal of strontium titanate and a 1.2nm thick layer of lanthanum aluminate, both of which are insulators. The conducting nanowires could then be erased with a reverse voltage or with light, rendering the interface an insulator once more.

The current publication in Science illustrates that the potential of this process extends beyond simple insulators and conductors—it can be tailored to specific uses, most notably FETs, the building blocks of computers and electronics. Levy and his colleagues fashioned a transistor they call a "SketchFET" with feature sizes of only 2nm—considerably smaller than the most advanced silicon transistor, which measures 45nm. Given the SketchFET's small size, many more transistors could be packed into a single device.

'Elegant' research
The SketchFET seems to have notable similarities to silicon transistors, said Alexander Bratkovsky, a senior scientist in the Information and Quantum Systems Lab at HP Labs, who is familiar with Levy's work.


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