GE Unveils Nanotech Device, May Shrink Future Chips

Reuters

Scientists at General Electric Corporation unveiled one of the smallest functioning devices ever made on Wednesday, a carbon tube about 10 atoms wide that could one day shrink computer chip technology.

Researchers at GE’s central lab in Niskayuna, New York, hope that their new device, which is a rolled-up sheet of carbon atoms resembling chicken wire, will someday operate as the standard semiconductor in computers and other electronics.

The device — a nanotube — is part of a developing field of technology in which devices are designed on the scale of a “nano,” or a billionth of a meter. That translates to about the size of 10 hydrogen atoms, or 1/80,000 the diameter of a human hair.

Semiconductors are the core of electronic equipment, acting as valves for electrons to pass through and which run everything from cell phones to lap tops.

Other companies have done work on nanotubes, including International Business Machines Corporation.

GE’s device has potential, according to Paul McEuen, a physics professor at Cornell University in New York state. He said the company’s work is a step forward for the science and shows that nanotubes have qualities that could allow them form smaller chips than those made of silicon, the most common material for computer chips.

That is crucial because scientists say silicon chips will reach their minimum size in the next decade. After that, they will be unable to get smaller without losing their ability to function.

However, McEuen says the nanotube still faces major technical hurdles. One challenge is getting millions of stitched-together nanotubes to work in coordination.

“As a field, we can make the smallest of electronic devices and have them perform very well. Now the big question is — what are they good for?” said McEuen.

Unlike earlier designs, GE’s nanotube can both emit and detect light, GE said. That means it has potential to perform tasks like shining small amounts of light on molecules, a possible application in medicine, or security, McEuen said.

The next generation of security sensors could be made from such nanotubes, helping detect minuscule amounts of chemical or biological toxins, GE said.