Hewlett-Packard researchers have developed a novel way to create flexible electronic circuits that could make it routine by the end of the decade to modify and upgrade the circuitry in computer-based consumer products even after they have been sold.
The technology grew out of an advance in nanocomputing, which involves creating circuitry on a molecular scale and making it interact with today's silicon wires and transistors.
A cellphone using the technology could be wirelessly upgraded to take advantage of improved wireless network standards. Another potential use would be in making extremely low cost memory chips and one early application could be in the ink-jet cartridges that Hewlett-Packard manufactures by the tens of millions.
The results of the research, which the company planned to report yesterday and will be the subject of an article in the Jan. 24 issue of the British journal Nanotechnology, are the clearest evidence yet that the once highly speculative technology could be commercialized soon.
The HP researchers were among dozens of groups who have been pursuing molecular computing for more than a decade.
Even as today's microelectronics industry continues to shrink the size of the wires and switches that make up silicon chips, most engineers believe that sometime in the next decade the microelectronics industry will run up against fundamental limits.
That would bring an end to the industrial era defined by an observation known as Moore's Law, in which chip performance has increased and cost has decreased at an accelerating rate for four decades.
That challenge led to a hunt for a new technology in which wires will be no more than several molecules wide and switches will be composed of single atoms. So far, many laboratories have fabricated experimental switches and wires on this scale, but little progress has been made on the crucial technical challenge of how to move signals between the world of molecular computing and today's microelectronic systems.
Now the researchers report that they have capitalized on a simple idea proposed by researchers at Stony Brook University in New York.
Last year, two Stony Brook scientists, Dmitri Strukov and Konstantin Likharev, proposed a novel way to overlay a mesh of molecular-scale wires, or nanowires, on top of a conventional chip circuit to move data between the two worlds.
"What we're doing is extending Moore's Law by 10 to 15 years," said Likharev, a physicist at Stony Brook who is a pioneer in nanotechnology.
In 1985, with Dmitri Averin, while teaching at the Moscow State University, he proposed a transistor based on the spin of a single electron.
Two years later, researchers at Bell Laboratories developed a prototype of such a device.
The Hewlett-Packard design would be a hybrid that contained transistors made using conventional photolithography techniques with an accompanying mesh of nanowire-connected switches.
"We've demonstrated a credible means for shrinking circuit density without shrinking transistors," said Stan Williams, director of quantum science research at HP Labs.
The researchers have simulated the design in the laboratory and they are starting to build test chips in a laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon. They hope to have a working prototype within a year.
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