Semiconducting nanocrystals have been grown inside bacteria – the innards of future optical computers could be made inside microbes.

The innards of next-generation optical computers could be manufactured inside microbes, following the first-ever successful attempt to grow semiconductor nanocrystals inside bacteria.



Bacteria could eventually be used to make devices such as transistors or light-emitting diodes only a few nanometres across, say the researchers who achieved this feat.



Such tiny LEDs will be needed to generate light in the planned ultra-fast microchips that will use optical rather than electrical signals to process data. Controlling the shape, size and crystal structure of the LEDs is crucial because, at these scales, quantum-physical effects come into play. These effects can subtly alter the wavelength of the light emitted by nanocrystals, possibly even making it undetectable. So researchers have looked to biology for ways to control the physical properties of nanocrystals.



A typical bacterium produced around 10,000 nanocrystals, each of which was 2 to 5 nanometres across – 25,000 times finer than a human hair.



But the researchers have yet to discover what controls crystal size and why they do not grow any larger. The determining factor will have to be identified and controlled before crystals of exactly the same size can be produced and then used in optical chips.



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