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Nanochip pushes computing limits

By Kevin Voigt
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(CNN) -- The digital world has just gone molecular.

The world's smallest computer chip has been created by research teams at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The chip is about the size of a human white blood cell and can store 160 kilobytes of information -- roughly enough to store the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

The innovative memory circuit heralds the advent of molecular computing and has led to breakthrough technology and an exponential increase in computing power.

"It's the sort of device that Intel and other companies could be making in the next 13 or 15 years," says Jonathan Green, a Caltech Ph.D. student and lead writer of the January 25 article in Nature magazine that announced the discovery.

Their work could have profound implications for the integrated digital-circuit industry, which is fast running into a technological brick wall for silicon-based memory chips. Moore's Law, a tenet of integrated circuit development, says that chip memory capacity doubles about every year. However, according to the research team's article in Nature, manufacturers believe that technology that uses silicon will hit a ceiling by 2013.

"There's a limit as to how much you can scale down silicon," Green says. "For certain, silicon won't be able to be scaled down [for memory chip construction] to the individual molecule level."

Nanotechnology is the marriage of chemistry and physics that -- through manmade manipulation on an atomic level using natural forces -- creates self-assembling, microscopic machines.

The UCLA-Caltech device has impressed the nanoscience research community. Charles Lieber, head of Harvard University's nanoscience laboratory, told Scientific American that the UCLA-Caltech device "is a true tour de force" in nanotechnology development, which has "pushed far beyond previous limits of integration density and bit numbers realized previously in the field of molecular electronics."

" [The chip has] pushed far beyond previous limits of integration density and bit numbers realized previously. " - Charles Lieber, Harvard University

While headline-making for its small size, the real wonder for nanoscience researchers is the density of the device. The chip is configured like a tic-tac-toe board on a grid of 400 intersecting wires which are about one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. The chip's switches are dumbbell-shaped molecules which, when charged, switch from one side to another, emulating the "0" or "1" controls of digital computers.

So how will this breakthrough discovery be implemented in future devices? "That's the million-dollar question," says Green. "That's a question for the engineers ... but before the technology, first comes the science."

Indeed, nanotechnology research up until now "has been a little light on the "technology' side," says Green. The limitations of nano application are largely determined by restrictions of nano assembly technology, such as machines that use a plasma of gas that eat away molecules to build microscopic machines.

Still, the potential of molecular computing is enormous, Green says. "You could have a small pen drive the size of your pinky finger that could hold a terabyte of information," he says.

The project was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense. "The applications for the defense community are huge in terms of intelligence gathering," Green says, such as creating faster, better spy satellites.


Light shines through vials containing nanoparticles.


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