Transistor Single Atom In Size Created By Australian Scientists

02/19/2012 11:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

Just when you thought electronic devices couldn't get any smaller comes word that Australian scientists have fabricated a transistor out of a single atom.

Transistors--semiconductor devices that amplify and switch electronic signals--are considered the building blocks of computers.

The researchers created the minute device--a phosphorous atom precisely positioned on a silicon crystal--using a scanning tunneling microscope inside a vacuum chamber. The transistor is not a commercially available product but is believed to represent an important step toward the development of next-generation "quantum" computers of unprecedented processing capabilities.

"This is the first time anyone has shown control of a single atom in a substrate with this level of precise accuracy," Dr. Michelle Simmons, director of the ARC Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication at the University of New South Wales and one of the researchers behind the breakthrough, said in a written statement.

Andreas Henirich, a physicist at I.B.M., told the New York Times that the researchers' approach was "extremely powerful. This is at least a 10-year effort to make very tiny electrical wires and combine them with the placement of a phosphorus atom exactly where they want them."

Dr. Simmons said in a video interview that the project to build a single-atom transistor had been launched a decade ago. "So here we are in 2012, and we've made a single-atom transistor roughly eight to 10 years ahead of where the industry is going to be."

The single-atom transistor was described in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.