A Wee Step Forward For The Tiniest Transistor

Quantum-effect chips are the gleam in the eyes of semiconductor scientists at AT&T Bell Laboratories, IBM, Toshiba, and other major labs worldwide. That's because the ever-shrinking transistor, which has fueled the march of computer power for three decades, will soon bump into fundamental limits of physics--unless science can harness the weird world of quantum mechanics, where solid matter can turn into energy waves and vice versa.

That dream is edging closer to reality. An international team from Hitachi Europe Ltd.'s Cambridge Lab and Britain's Cambridge University recently grabbed headlines by showing off a prototype of a new transistor that switches on and off with the movement of a solitary electron. While the Cambridge transistor isn't the first of its kind, it indicates progress toward memory chips that will hold trillions of bits of data. To store that much data now would require a chip the size of a tennis court.

One major hang-up: The new transistor so far works only at a supercold 459F. But researchers at Texas Instruments Inc. confide that they are set to unveil not just a quantum-effect transistor, but a complete quantum-effect integrated circuit--and it works at room temperature. In fact, TI expects the technology to hit the marketplace by 1998.

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