Moving toward molecular chips

The line between science and science fiction grew fuzzier last week when a team of researchers said they have taken a big step toward building a super small, super fast computer based on molecular, rather than silicon, chips.

Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles and Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories have found a way to fashion a "logic gate" -- a basic building block of all computers -- from a certain type of molecule. By attaching a few wires and switches, a group of the molecules can be knitted together to perform like a silicon chip, but on a molecular scale.

"We can potentially get the computational power of 100 workstations on the size of a grain of sand. We'll do it in steps; I'm hopeful that we can do it in about a decade," James Heath, the UCLA chemistry professor in change of the research team, said in a statement. The work is described in the latest issue of the journal Science.

The development could prove vital in helping to sustain the rapid pace of development that the computer industry has enjoyed in recent decades, the researchers said. Silicon chip technologies are expected to reach certain theoretical limits in the next 10 to 15 years, while chip plants are becoming prohibitively expensive to build.

Smaller than bacteria

Molecular computers could be built smaller and more cheaply than silicon allows, and would suck up much less power to operate, making them far more portable. The researchers say they hope to build entire memory chips that are a hundred nanometers wide -- smaller than a single bacterium.

"You can potentially do approximately 100 billion times better than a current Pentium in terms of the energy required to do a calculation," Heath said.

The researchers have dreamed up all sorts of possible applications for their molecular processors: supercomputers the size of wristwatches, computers that can be woven into clothing, biomedical instruments that can be injected into the human body to help diagnose diseases.

The team acknowledges that many hurdles stand between it and the first true molecular computer. Unlike the relatively exact science of silicon engineering, anything built using chemistry "inevitably has defects," Heath said. The team believes it can identify these defects and use wires and switches to route around them.

Prototypes of molecular-based computers may be only a few years away, and a hybrid computer combining molecular electronics with some silicon technology could follow in a decade, Heath said.

"Years ago, when I first told people I was trying to make a computer chemically, I wasn't taken very seriously. Although the idea is getting a little more respect now, we still have a long way to go," Heath said.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

James Niccolai

PC World
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?