The ultimate green technology: Creating computers that use 10,000 times less energy

February 13, 2017
The University of Alberta's Robert Wolkow and Taleana Huff are patterning and imaging electronic circuits at the atomic level. Credit: John Ulan for the University of Alberta

Imagine patterning and visualizing silicon at the atomic level, something which, if done successfully, will revolutionize the quantum and classical computing industry. A team of scientists in Edmonton, Canada has done just that, led by a world-renowned physicist and his up-and-coming protégé.

University of Alberta PhD student Taleana Huff teamed up with her supervisor Robert Wolkow to channel a technique called atomic force microscopy—or AFM—to pattern and image electronic circuits at the . This is the first time the powerful technique has been applied to atom-scale fabrication and imaging of a silicon surface, notoriously difficult because the act of applying the technique risks damaging the silicon. However, the reward is worth the risk, because this level of control could stimulate the revolution of the technology industry.

"It's kind of like braille," explains Huff. "You bring the atomically sharp tip really close to the sample surface to simply feel the atoms by using the forces that naturally exist among all materials."

One of the problems with working at the atomic scale is the risk of perturbing the thing you are measuring by the act of measuring it. Huff, Wolkow, and their research collaborators have largely overcome those problems and as a result can now build by moving individual atoms around: most importantly, those atomically defined structures result in a new level of control over single electrons.

This is the first time that the powerful AFM technique has been shown to see not only the but also the electronic bonds between those atoms. Central to the technique is a powerful new computational approach that analyzes and verifies the identity of the atoms and bonds seen in the images. "We couldn't have performed these new and demanding computations without the support of Compute Canada. This combined computation and measurement approach succeeds in creating a foundation for a whole new generation of both classical and quantum computing architectures," says Wolkow.

He has his long-term sights set on making ultra-fast and ultra-low-power silicon-based circuits, potentially consuming ten thousand times less power than what is on the market.

"Imagine instead of your phone battery lasting a day that it could last weeks at a time, because you're only using a couple of electrons per computational pattern," says Huff, who explains that the precision of the work will allow the group and potential industry investors to geometrically pattern atoms to make just about any kind of logic structure imaginable.

This hands-on work was exactly what drew the self-described Canadian-by-birth American-by-personality to condensed matter physics in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science. Following undergraduate work in astrophysics—and an internship at NASA—Huff felt the urge to get more tangible with her graduate work. (With hobbies that include power lifting and motorcycle restoration, she comes by the desire for tangibility quite honestly.) "I wanted something that I could touch, something that was going to be a physical product I could work with right away," says Huff.

And in terms of who she wanted to work with, she went straight to the top, seeking out Wolkow, renowned the world over for his work with quantum dots, dangling bonds, and industry-pushing work on atomic-scale science. "He just has such passion and conviction for what he does," she continues. "With Bob, it's like, 'we're going to change the world.' I find that really inspiring," says Huff.

"Taleana has the passion and the drive to get very challenging things done. She now has understanding and skills that are truly unique in the world giving us a great advantage in the field," says Wolkow. "We just need to on her taste in music," he adds with a laugh.

The group's latest research findings, "Possible observation of chemical bond contrast in AFM images of a hydrogen terminated " were published in the February 13, 2017 issue of Nature Communications.

Explore further: Electrical currents can be now be switched on and off at the smallest conceivable scale

More information: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS14222

Related Stories

Single Atom Quantum Dots Bring Real Devices Closer (Video)

January 27, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Single atom quantum dots created by researchers at Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology and the University of Alberta make possible a new level of control over individual electrons, a development ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in ultra-fast data processing at nanoscale

October 20, 2017

A research team from the National University of Singapore has recently invented a novel "converter" that can harness the speed and small size of plasmons for high frequency data processing and transmission in nanoelectronics.

Art advancing science at the nanoscale

October 18, 2017

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PPihkala
5 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2017
"Imagine instead of your phone battery lasting a day that it could last weeks at a time, because you're only using a couple of electrons per computational pattern,"

Is not going to happen, since when one uses the phone, the display takes maybe half of the power. So if computing power goes to zero, usage time only doubles.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2017
Is not going to happen, since when one uses the phone, the display takes maybe half of the power. So if computing power goes to zero, usage time only doubles.


Much more than half. My phone reports 134 mAh used for 1h 14 mins on the display, and I keep it very dim. The battery is 2200 mAh which means just the display will eat up the whole thing in 20 hours.

Between the display, the radios (bluetooth/wifi/3G), and the loudspeaker, there's not a whole lot left over for the actual CPU as it is. You can play MP3s for nearly as long as the actual standby time of the device (85h vs 100h), because again most of the energy goes to the cellular radio.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.