Quantum Computing Gets a Step Closer With Seven-Atom Transistor

Seven-atom transistor


Quantum computing just got a little bit closer, after an Australian team of researchers unveiled a seven-atom transistor. Measuring just four billionths of a meter and embedded in a single silicon crystal, it acts as a switch on a chip and paves the way for faster processing in an even smaller package. The team, from the Centre of Quantum Technology at the University of New South Wales, did the tricky stuff by hand, which means that commercial versions of their breakthrough will be at least five years away.

Lead researcher, Michelle Y. Simmonds, explained just what the transistor will be able to do. “You’ll be able to solve problems that would take longer than the life of the universe with a classical computer,” she said. The transistor is expected to decrease the size of chips by around 100 times, although it’s hard to say just how this will affect Moore’s Law. The idea, from Gordon E. Moore in 1965, states that, in a nutshell, the capabilities of electronic devices roughly double every two years–as transistors shrink in size so that you can pack twice as many into a small area of silicon. But Moore’s Law stops when the transistor is the size of one atom–i.e., it can’t get any smaller–and things get a bit strange when you’re talking about very few atoms, which don’t act like a traditional transistor … like this new tech.

For Simmonds and her colleagues, the quantum leap will only be achieved if they manage to make an entire chip from transistors made from the silicon crystals, as that will mean an exponential leap in processing power. The breakthrough is just part of the team’s main research project: building a quantum computer.

It’s just worth comparing the Centre of Quantum Technology team’s achievements to something that happened a little little over 20 years ago. Don Eigler, a fellow at IBM, manipulated atoms for the first time using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope–the same technology that the New South Wales team has been using. Good corporate man that he was, Eigler spelled out the company name using 35 Xenon atoms.

[Image AFP, Via BBC]

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My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.