University of Pittsburgh researchers have created a nanoscale one-stop shop, a single platform for creating electronics at a nearly single-atom scale that could yield advanced forms of such technologically important devices as high-density memory devices and-most importantly-transistors and computer processors. The multitude of uses stems from a technique previously developed by the same team to fashion rewritable nanostructures at the interface between two insulating materials.
"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, 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 miniaturize. 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 4 nanometers wide at the interface of a crystal of strontium titanate and a 1.2 nanometer 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 process can be tailored to specific uses, such s field-effect transistors (FETs), the building blocks of computers and electronics. Levy and his colleagues fashioned a transistor they call a "SketchFET" with feature sizes of only two nanometers, which is smaller than the most advanced silicon transistor, which measures 45 nanometers.
The SketchFET transistor can be erased at will and replaced with other devices such as high-density memory, wiring, or chemical sensors that could rival the ultra-sensitive detectors made from carbon nanotubes. Because the sensitive region of Levy's proposed sensor can be the same size as a single molecule, it can be used to sense the presence or absence of a single molecule, making it ideal for chemical and biological sensing technologies, he explained.
Additionally, the scale of these components is such that fundamental properties of quantum mechanics too complex to simulate with ordinary computers can be observed. So-called quantum "tunneling"--in which electrons pass through forbidden regions-was directly observed and controlled. Such behavior also may be useful in quantum simulations of novel electronic materials, and for the construction of a quantum computer.
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