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Bell Labs Makes Molecular Transistor

Light Reading
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Light Reading

In 1956 Bell Labs scientists Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain won the acclaimed Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of the transistor. Now, some fifty years later, it looks like Bell Labs has done it again: This time its scientists have fabricated the first molecular-scale transistor (see Bell Labs Gets Molecular).

By "molecular scale," it means that the critical dimension of the transistor -- the length of what's called the channel -- is determined by the length of a molecule. The new Bell Labs transistor, the details of which were reported in the journal Nature today, has a channel length of 1 nanometer, which is approximately 100 times smaller than in today's transistors.

"This really does represent the ultimate in small," says John Rogers, the director of nanotechnology research at Bell Labs.

This has a couple of potential benefits. First, the channel length influences the speed of the transistor, shorter channels being faster because electrons can traverse them more quickly. Second, it will allow more transistors to be squeezed onto a chip -- if anyone can work out how to connect them all.

"The primary reason we believe it will have an impact on electronics is because of Moore's Law," notes Rogers. Moore's Law is an empirical observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months. The simple consequence of keeping up with Moore's Law is that transistors must keep getting smaller.

All this is very futuristic, however. Chip makers like Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) reckon that standard silicon processing will keep going until 2010, so molecular electronics would most likely wait until after that (see Intel Shows Tiny Transistor).

Bell Labs is not alone in its interest in things molecular. A bunch of research labs around the world have made molecular-scale electronic widgets, such as switches, memory elements, and even units that perform logic functions. Where Bell Labs can claim to have advanced the cause is by making the first molecular-scale transistor.

"Switching on its own is not enough for preparing a logic circuit," says Hendrick Schon, a member of Bell Labs' technical staff. Every logic manipulation that's carried out introduces loss, so in order to make complicated, cascaded computations, the logic element needs also to amplify the signal. In other words, it needs to be a transistor because transistors have gain.

It's worth mentioning that IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) recently made a transistor based on a carbon nanotube, which is a single molecule. But the molecule did not actually define the size of the device: That was still fixed by standard lithography techniques.

Bell Labs scientists used a self-assembly technique to make the transistors, relying on the chemistry of the molecules to adhere them to a gold electrode. In contrast to lithography, which uses expensive equipment and a sophisticated cleanroom, the self-assembly process happens in a beaker on a benchtop, so it could prove to be a highly cost effective method in the long run, says Schon.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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12/4/2012 | 7:42:07 PM
re: Bell Labs Makes Molecular Transistor
As a Lucent employee, i have to wonder about Bell Labs. It is meant to be the "biggest brain pool"in the world.....

It's great that they can find a fish that can change it's colour, and balance a molecule on a seesaw, these are the things that are going to turn Lucent round.

Some good ground engineers have been lost in Lucent,maybe it's these people with their PhD's and fancy certs sitting in big offices in NJ that should be gone.

Why cant these "genius'" use there over sized brains and acutally help the company.We missed 10G, where Nortel beat us, but it was actually downt to Nortel ground engineers that 10G was so successful, not their R&D guys.

As a message from alot of Lucent employees....Bell Labs, prove your worth.....
12/4/2012 | 7:42:05 PM
re: Bell Labs Makes Molecular Transistor
Fhunton, you seem to be a little confused with respect to whether you love or hate, laud or blame the scientists at Bell Labs for Lucent's roller coaster fortunes.

Let me say this - while stating that I am neither Lucent nor Bell Labs - that I believe that what value Lucent has maintained, and can make use of going forward, comes down to three things: proven products in "traditional" volume markets; a trusted brand name; and the scientists of Bell Labs.

If Lucent missed 10G, it is the fault of those at Lucent responsible for product development decisions, not that of Bell Labs. The groundwork was there, on 10G and many other things. This latest work is an example of a lab like Bell doing what it ought to - coming up with the really big technological advances. Scientists cannot do this kind of work, AND be responsible for productization decisions, because that would imply that they would spend much or most of their time doing something other than research.

So, Lucent man, don't knock Bell Labs. Put any blame where it is due: on the shoulders of Lucent's (now, thankfully, largely ex) management. And Bell, keep it up. You still do us all proud.
12/4/2012 | 7:41:56 PM
re: Bell Labs Makes Molecular Transistor
>>> quote
This latest work is an example of a lab like Bell doing what it ought to - coming up with the really big technological advances. Scientists cannot do this kind of work, AND be responsible for productization decisions, because that would imply that they would spend much or most of their time doing something other than research.

Exactly right -- Bell Labs was meant to be a place for research into things that might become viable 10-20 years in the future. It is closer to a university lab than an industrial lab. Many of the people there are still motivated by more than just money. Just ask the postdocs who are willing to work for about half of what industry was willing to pay.

The sad fact that Bell Labs seems anachronistic is just a statement of the incompatibility between long-term research and short-term product development and corporate bottom-line expectations. I don't know what can be done about that.
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