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Wednesday October 17 4:01 PM ET

Electric Circuit Made From Organic Molecules

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By Daniel Sorid

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Scientists from Bell Labs have built transistors, or electric switches, a million times smaller than a grain of sand, in an advance that could play a key role in developing minuscule computer chips that use tiny amounts of power.

Transistors, in a much larger form, are crammed together to make up the brains of computers and all other electronic devices. Using organic molecules and a chemical self-assembly process, the scientists have shrunk the size of the transistors to about one or two nanometers, or a billionth of a meter, which is an unprecedented scale.

In research to be presented in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, the scientists also said they built a simple circuit module commonly used in computers, known as a voltage inverter, from the transistors.

``This is a beautiful, simple and clever approach,' said Paul Weiss, a professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. ``It circumvents many of the difficulties inherent in other nano-fabrication approaches.''

Molecular switches have become something of a Holy Grail in the development of advanced electronics. Physical limits of the current generation of chips, made from silicon, are expected to block the development of more powerful devices within the next 10 to 15 years.

As computer chips are filled with more and more transistors, their ability to crunch numbers and process information grows. Some experts have envisioned microscopic computers that could be placed virtually anywhere without the need for constant recharging.

The research from Bell Labs, owned by Lucent Technologies Inc., adds to a growing list of successful experiments in molecular electronics, including work by International Business Machines Corp., which in August announced a circuit made up of carbon atoms rolled together into tubes.

The Bell Labs research, led by Hendrik Schon, used a separate class of organic material, known as thiols, in its research. The molecules, the researchers observed, worked well at both regulating and amplifying the flow of electricity.

``It's very hard to figure out how to electrically switch a molecule,'' and no one has ever made an electrical ``gate'' out of this type of molecule, said Tom Theis, the director of physical sciences at IBM's research division. ``If that's in fact what's going on, then its a very important step forward.''

The transistors were assembled using a novel approach in which the molecules in essence assemble themselves between electric conductors, or electrodes, made of gold.

The assembly technique is relatively easy and inexpensive, the researchers said, and it allows the production of very dense transistors. With a distance of only one and two nanometers between the electrodes, the so-called channel length of the transistor is the smallest every made.

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