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HP Envisions Alternative to Transistors

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Challenging a basic tenet of the semiconductor industry, researchers at Hewlett-Packard Co. have demonstrated a technology that could replace the transistor as the fundamental building block of all computers.

The devices, called crossbar latches, could be made so small that thousands of them could fit across the diameter of a human hair, enabling the high-tech industry to continue to build ever-smaller computing devices that are less expensive than their predecessors.

"If we're going to extend Moore's Law for another several decades, we've got to have an alternative strategy," said Phil Kuekes, one of the paper's authors at HP Labs. "This is the final piece of the puzzle in what HP has been putting together as such a strategy."

The smallest features of today's silicon-based transistors are about 90 nanometers long, a nanometer being roughly one hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. The crossbar latch, by comparison, can work in a space of about 2 to 3 nanometers.

The HP research, reported in Tuesday's Journal of Applied Physics, scraps the transistor entirely. In its place is basically a series of platinum wires crossed opposite directions. At the junctions are molecules that in the HP research happen to be steric acid.

"It's metal and molecules. Nothing else,'' Kuekes said. "We're getting away from the physics of silicon."

Like in a transistor, an electrical signal that passes through a crossbar latch is manipulated to perform logic functions. The latest research shows that the technology also can be used for amplifying a signal, allowing multiple functions to be applied.

"Transistors will continue to be used for years to come with conventional silicon circuits," Kuekes said, "but this could someday replace transistors in computers, just as transistors replaced vacuum tubes and vacuum tubes replaced electromagnet relays before them."


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