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disRUPT: Nanotech research is tiny, but important to IT development

Editor’s note: The following article is a part of disRUPT, a special series on Silicon Prairie News. This series is a partnership between The Reader, Scott Technology Center and us, Silicon Prairie News. To learn more, see our post: Special Series: disRUPT II.

(Left: Christian Binek of University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Photo by Marlon Wright.)

Size does matter when it comes to electronics.

Consumers seem to prefer ever-smaller devices, but making things too small could lead to major technological problems in roughly 10 years.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are working on both aspects of the size issue.

The decreasing size of devices such as cell phones, mp3 players and computers can be credited to transistors, the tiny on/off switches that control the flow of electrical current. The smaller the transistors, the cheaper the production costs of computer chips, and the more powerful the devices powered by these chips.

That shrinking process is part of the work of University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Materials Research Science Engineering Center (MRSEC), which recently moved into the university’s new 125,000-square foot, $37 million Jorgensen Hall physical sciences building (see sidebar).

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, MRSEC researchers focus on nanotechnology, the study of all things really, really small. For a frame of reference, the thickness of a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers.

“I tell people about my work, and they respond with all of these science fiction-type ideas, like someday we will have intelligent devices circulating in our bloodstream, acting as tiny doctors,” says UNL physicist Christian Binek. “I laughed at first, but if we look just at size, I have to remind myself how big blood cells are. They are gigantic in comparison to what I am researching, so maybe we will get there someday.”

If there is a someday. Much like the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, IT developers have their own sort of doomsday clock. Binek says that in approximately 10 years, we could see the end of Moore’s Law, a famous 1965 prediction that computing power doubles every 18 months.

“What’s happened for decades is that many devices are continually scaled down, so that people have iPhones and other devices that have so much more storage than the room-sized super computers found back in the early days,” Binek says. “Here is the problem: we find that in about 2020, at the latest, we will run into the fundamental problem that this idea of making things smaller no longer works.”

As structures become smaller, the heat produced by their consumption of electric power begins to damage circuits and destroy the structures, according to Binek, a native of Germany who has worked in Lincoln for seven years.

What’s needed to stop Moore’s Law from ticking down to zero is a new sort of transistor that generates less heat by using less electricity. Binek, fellow physicist Peter Dowben (left), and theorist Kirill Belashchenko (right, photos from unl.edu) recently announced a step in this direction.

The team found a way to control the spin of electrons by applying a voltage of zero current, a field known by researchers as spintronics.

According to ScienceDaily magazine, conventional semiconductors rely on electrons’ charge to power devices. Spintronics instead uses the spin of electrons, which could be manipulated by electric and magnetic fields. 

Binek said this change would allow information to be accessed immediately and processed with little electric power consumption and vastly reduced heat.

“If we don’t come up with new ideas and technology, we become stagnant, and that is bad for the economy,” Binek says. “What will happen with spintronics is hard to say, but I imagine we’ll be ready when the right application for it comes along.”