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UCLA Researchers One Step Closer to Developing Computer Memory on a Molecular Scale

Aired August 17, 2000 - 2:40 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Imagine a powerful computer so small you can't even see it, yet it performs all the magic of current PCs. It could easily come along during this decade, as CNN's Fred Katayama shows us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRED KATAYAMA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The world's first computer more than five decades ago took up a whole room, some 1,500 square feet. Now, a computer on a desktop, or even in the palm of your hand, is nothing special. But in another decade or so, some scientists say computers will be microscopic in size because they'll be using molecules for memory storage, not just silicon chips. These images were magnified more than 100 million times.

Researchers at UCLA have come one step closer to developing memory on a molecular scale. Their electronic switch, they say, could eventually lead to a more powerful, smaller computer that would consume a fraction of the energy of today's machines.

JAMES HEATH, CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR, UCLA: We estimate that energy efficiency of our machine will be about a million times more efficient than a silicon machine.

KATAYAMA: The breakthrough: the new molecular switch can repeatedly be turned on and off like a light switch. That's a crucial feature of RAM semiconductors, those random access memory chips that allow computer users to write information, store it, erase it, and rewrite over it, just like a tape recorder. What's more, the molecular switch can be made in a solid state to work at room temperature just like current silicon chips.

STAN WILLIAMS, HEWLETT-PACKARD: This is a significant step forward. That is a very powerful and important thing to do if we ever hope to make general electronics using molecules.

KATAYAMA: Last year, the UCLA team, in conjunction with Hewlett- Packard, developed a chemical switch that could be set only once and in liquid state at that. Any data stored based on that technology would be permanent, not rewritable.

Here's how the new switch works: it features two interlocked rings linked in a circle. The switch is off. When researchers remove an electron, the molecular ring spins outward, turning the switch on. When an electron is added, the molecule spins again, turning the switch off.

The team's next challenge: turning these molecules into memory and connecting them to wires to make circuits. Hewlett-Packard plans to capitalize on this research.

WILLIAMS: We're doing things in a few months that we thought originally would take us years to be able to accomplish. So we think that it's possible that the first very simple types of molecular electronic devices could come available on the five-year time frame.

KATAYAMA (on camera): Williams predicts the first consumer items to use molecular memories will be digital cameras. They could replace the pricey flash memory cards used to store pictures. But another decade may pass before molecules can actually do computing.

Fred Katayama, CNN Financial News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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