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IBM builds circuit with carbon monoxide molecules

By Caroline Humer
October 25, 2002 4:04 pm PT

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - International Business Machines Corp. scientists have built the tiniest computer circuit yet using individual molecules, a move they say advances their push toward smaller, faster electronics.

IBM researchers at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, have built and operated a computer circuit in which individual molecules of carbon monoxide move like toppling dominoes across a flat copper surface.

One circuit is so small that 190 billion could fit on a standard pencil-top eraser, IBM said.

IBM has been working on molecular computing for years as it tries to find an alternative to silicon-based semiconductors in modern computers.

Silicon has performed well over the past few decades, fulfilling a tenet from Intel Corp . founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 18 months. But scientists expect its physical properties to limit further advancements in the next 10 to 15 years.

IBM said the new "molecule cascade" technique enabled it to make logic elements 260,000 times smaller than those used in silicon-based semiconductor chips.

IBM is still years from translating the nanotechnology and quantum computing work it has done in research labs into a setting where such transistors could be manufactured and then used in products like cell phones and personal computers.

"The exciting thing is not so much that we're not there yet. The exciting thing is where we've come from," said IBM fellow Don Eigler.

"We've come from, in about 12 or 13 years, from discovering that we had an instrument that was just barely capable of imaging atoms and then moving atoms to function logical circuitry," he said.

They are also smaller than the circuits that IBM has made in the laboratory out of carbon nanotubes, which are extremely strong because of the nature of the carbon bond, and which IBM considers to be a possible alternative to silicon.

The molecule cascade circuits were made by creating a pattern of carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface. IBM moved one molecule to start a one-directional cascade of molecules, similar to the way dominoes interact.

IBM is publishing details of the advancement in Science Magazine.

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