Single-Atom Computer Gives Moore's Law the Cold Shoulder

By Eileen Feretic  |  Posted Friday, February 24, 2012 19:02 PM

By Tim Moran

Transistors and integrated circuits, while not thought of daily in the enterprise, nevertheless have a profound and direct effect on what can be accomplished with computing technology.

One of the tenets of computing has long been Moore's Law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who, in a 1965 paper, posited that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Moore was uncannily correct, for the law has been used, successfully, in semiconductor and computer industry planning for half a century.

But has Moore's Law's time come to an end?

If a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales, Purdue University and the University of Melbourne is correct, this could be the case. The team has developed a controllable transistor engineered from a single phosphorus atom. Researchers believe this development represents the physical limit of Moore's Law: You just can't get any smaller than this.

Michelle Simmons, group leader and director of the ARC Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication at the University of New South Wales, explained it this way in an interview on the Purdue University Website: "This is a beautiful demonstration of controlling matter at the atomic scale to make a real device. Fifty years ago, when the first transistor was developed, no one could have predicted the role that computers would play in our society today.

"As we transition to atomic-scale devices, we are now entering a new paradigm where quantum mechanics promises a similar technological disruption. It is the promise of this future technology that makes this present development so exciting."

The smallest transistor ever built, therefore, could provide the basis for true quantum computing. According to the Purdue release, this single-atom transistor could "lead the way to building a quantum computer that works by controlling the electrons and thereby the quantum information, or qubits."

The researchers believe they have proved that, by "achieving the placement of a single atom, we have, at the same time, developed a technique that will allow us to be able to place several of these single-atom devices toward the goal of a developing a scalable system."Â

Some scientists, however, have doubts that such a device can ever be built. Most agree that this new development does not fully answer the question of whether quantum computing is even possible.

Simmons responds: "The answer to this lies in whether quantum coherence can be controlled over large numbers of qubits. The technique we have developed is potentially scalable, using the same materials as the silicon industry, but more time is needed to realize this goal."

And there's one more "detail" that will delay making the commercialization of single-atom quantum computing a reality: The device must be kept very cold--at least as cold as liquid nitrogen, or minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit. It will be some time, therefore, before Moore's Law is truly iced.