Experts fear rapid advance of computer technology may one day reach a limit due to the difficulties involved in shaping silicon in finer and finer microscopic detail.
But a team of quantum and synthetic chemists from Sydney University is hoping to get around the impasse by developing a new form of computer chip technology based not on silicon slabs but on single molecules.
Working in the field of molecular electronics, possibly the ultimate form of nanotechnology, they are attempting to construct devices from the 'bottom up' by assembling molecules on a surface to carry out specific functions.
They are trying to develop molecular wires and switches that can, in principle, be connected together to form molecular devices. This differs from 'top down' technology that etches circuits into a silicon base. Worldwide research in this area has grown exponentially in the last decade.
"When you come to a brick wall like this, you can either make the most of what you have or invent something new," said Emeritus Professor Noel Hush, "We are trying something new.
"Supplementing and ultimately replacing the 'top down' silicon technology for some key aspects of electronic-device manufacture is an important application of this research."
Professor Hush is one of four scientists from The University of Sydney's Molecular Electronics Group who have received an ARC Linkage Grant of $1.05 million over three years to fund their work, in partnership with Intel Australia.
The group aims to turn around a commercial product in five to 10 years. They have set their sights on assembling an ultra-dense RAM molecular memory chip capable of much greater data storage than any commercially available technology and in fact any technology attainable by conventional silicon-based electronics. Other exciting applications for 'bottom up' building include designing efficient photovoltaic devices for solar energy conversion.
The team of scientists covers three areas of research and development. Professor Max Crossley, a world leader in this type of chemistry, will contribute his skill and expertise in synthesising extremely complex 'designer' molecules. Professor Hush, from the School of Molecular and Microbiology Biosciences, and Professorial Fellow Jeffrey Reimers, from the School of Chemistry, will work on the sophisticated design of the devices. Dr Pall Thordarson from the School of Chemistry and the Electron Microscope Unit will work with the molecules in the laboratory, taking measurements and assembling the device.
"We are a long way out from what has been done before," Dr Reimers said. "The challenge of this is enormous."
"This is a very ambitious, high risk project and it is valuable to have Intel, one of the world's largest computer chip manufacturers, as our industrial partner," Professor Hush said.
Dr Steven Duvall, director of strategic investment for Intel Australia, added: "Intel is always interested in exploring the technologies that may one day drive the next generation of the computing industry. We're pleased to be supporting this exciting research from the University of Sydney."
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