A team of researchers at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have developed a quantum transistor using just a single atom, and capable of operating at room temperature.
The device points toward major new frontiers in computing power and efficiency. Transistors, which control the flow of electronic signals, are the basis of modern electronics. The steady reduction in the size and energy consumption of transistors has been the fundamental driver of advances in computing power for more than half a century.
The new transistor moves a single atom of silver to open and close a circuit. The materials-science news site Nanowerk describes it as the world’s smallest transistor, though other single-atom transistors have been developed previously. More importantly, the new device is described as a so-called ‘quantum’ switch, meaning it can carry more complex information than the binary “on-off” signal of today’s transistors.
The most notable claim made by the researchers is that the switch can operate at room temperature, while most quantum computing elements can only operate at extremely low temperatures, making them more expensive and difficult to maintain. A peer-reviewed paper describing the new device was published in June in the journal Advanced Materials.
According to the researchers, their innovation could have a major impact on the future of computing, particularly in energy efficiency. Thomas Schimmel, head of the research team and co-director of the Center for Single-Atom Electronics and Photonics, says the switch could use less energy than today’s silicon technology “by a factor of 10,000.”
As with most developments in quantum computing, this one, even if it can be economically produced at scale, is likely years from deployment in real-world computers. This transistor’s use of all-metal construction, rather than semiconductors, means it won’t be easily integrated into conventional computing architectures. But when they do arrive, quantum computers will do much more than save energy, which is why major players, including IBM, are investing in the technology.