Tiny but brilliant, the cool computer is near

Soon, your PC will be smaller and faster, thanks to freezing liquid helium and the electron.

Cambridge scientists are developing the world's smallest, fastest computers - whose key working part will be a single electron.

Research now under way will produce supercooled computers that could far outstrip the fastest machines now available, while also being physically smaller and using less power. They would be built using transistors so tiny that they would be turned on and off by the passage of one electron - the smallest unit of electrical charge.

Present computers use transistors, which are operated by the passage of thousands of electrons. But this generates heat, and also imposes limits on miniaturisation of computer chips.

Modern-day chips are already reaching a lower size limit, because as they shrink they must cope with "quantum effects" in which electrons can effectively pass through solid material. This phenomenon, known as "quantum tunnelling", makes it impossible for a transistor to be below a certain size and still operate at room temperature.

But the new work, being led by Professor Haroon Ahmed, at Cambridge University's microelectronics centre, together with the Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory, aims to use quantum effects to their advantage.

The new computers, cooled by liquid helium, will operate at -269 Centigrade, just four degrees above absolute zero. At that temperature, a single electron can be "trapped" on an island of atoms - effectively storing a single "bit" of information. Once that is achieved, the researchers will aim to build "warmer" versions that operate at -196 Centigrade. This is a crucial temperature as such a system could be cooled by liquid nitrogen, which costs about the same by volume as milk.

A system using that technology would be highly attractive to engineering, scientific and financial users, said Dr Yutaka Kuwahara, Hitachi's general manager of research and development.

"We are moving towards the era of the `terabit' chip - able to store 1,000 billion bits on one chip," he said. Present desktop PCs have chips that store about 8 million bits at a time.

"After about 2010, conventional memory structures will have too much difficulty keeping up with the demands of technology," said Dr Kuwahara.

Among the possible benefits would be more accurate weather forecasts. Forecasting systems treat large areas as collections of interacting squares, in which the weather changes in each square affect the others. The finer this "mesh" of squares is, the better the forecast.

Financial analysts would be able to sift through huge amounts of data arriving simultaneously and pick out the vital clues for market success.

"There's no way that computers can continue to progress as they are doing. The physics breaks down," said Dr Kuwahara. But the single-electron devices will overcome that. "We are moving towards precise control of a small number of electrons."

Laboratories all over the world have been working on single electronics and trying to achieve such a breakthrough. Hitachi's effort was made not only with Cambridge University but in conjunction with laboratories from the UK, France, Germany and Greece. The project is funded by ESPRIT, the European Programme for Collaborative Research, and a working version should be available by 2001.

The cost of building such single-electron transistors could be enormous. But Hitachi expects that chip manufacturers will club together in order to realise the benefits of the radical approach.

"We haven't estimated the cost," said Dr Kuwahara. "It will probably be an important factor. But manufacturers will share facilities. It will be too expensive to not cooperate."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks