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This computer model shows how the single atom transistor sites in a channel in a silicon crystal. (Credit: Purdue University image)

For decades now computer processors have been increasing in density and power right on schedule according to a prediction known as “Moore’s Law,” which says that “the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.” Remarkably, that’s been holding true since 1965, when Caltech Professor Gordon Moore was first quoted in Electronics Magazine.

That may sound impressive, but to really appreciate it you need to wrap your head around the fact that we’re talking exponential growth, accelerating faster and faster with each step. Around 1970 that meant around 2 thousand transistors on a chip, but by 2011 the number was well over 2 billion.

Moore originally said that he expected the trend to last about ten years, but forty years later it was still going strong, leading him to comment that, “”It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens…you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms which is a fundamental barrier, but it’ll be two or three generations before we get that far.”

Which brings us up to the present day, when researchers at the University of New South Wales announced that they could reliably create a single atom transistor in a block of silicon, complete with attachment points for electrodes. The researchers are confident that the process can be scaled up to create densely packed chips made of atom level transistors, keeping Moore’s law on track for years to come.

The small size has a number of advantages besides transistor density. The speed of light actually starts to become a limiting factor as the number of transistors gets really high, and shortening the distance between devices can make a real difference.

The UNSW lab’s breakthrough is primarily about the precision of their ability to locate the atoms consistently, necessary if the device is ever going to make it out of the lab. Single atom transistors have been created previously, but creating them was a hit or miss proposition.

There remain significant challenges to building useable processors with this technology. Currently, in order to operate, the transitor has to be kept below -321 degrees Fahrenheit (-196 Celsius) the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

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