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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea