Researchers push atomic-scale circuitry for smaller, greener electronics

July 09, 2014 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Technological shrinkage can only go so far when using traditional transistor-based integrated circuits. Consequently, in the drive to get small, Robert Wolkow and his lab at the University of Alberta are aiming to build entirely new technologies at the atomic scale.

"Our ultimate goal is to make ultra-low-power electronics because that's what is most demanded by the world right now," said Wolkow, the iCORE Chair in Nanoscale Information and Communications Technology in the Faculty of Science. "We are approaching some fundamental limits that will stop the 30-year-long drive to make things faster, cheaper, better and smaller; this will come to an end soon.

"An entirely new method of computing will be necessary."

Wolkow and his team in the University of Alberta's physics department and the National Institute for Nanotechnology are working to engineer atomically precise technologies that have practical, real-world applications. His lab already made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for inventing the world's sharpest object—a microscope tip just one atom wide at its end.

They made an earlier breakthrough in 2009 when they created the smallest-ever quantum dots—a single atom of silicon measuring less than one nanometre wide—using a technique that will be awarded a U.S. patent later this month.

Quantum dots, Wolkow says, are vessels that confine electrons, much like pockets on a pool table. The dots can be spaced so that electrons can be in two pockets at the same time, allowing them to interact and share electrons—a level of control that makes them ideally suited for computer-like circuitry.

"It could be as important as the transistor," says Wolkow. "It lays the groundwork for a whole new basis of electronics, and in particular, ultra-low-power electronics."