Scientists create single-atom devices to supercharge computers

Researchers devise groundbreaking new methods to create and duplicate single-atom transistors for quantum computers.

Scientists create single-atom devices to supercharge computers

Quantum computer illustration.

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  • Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland were able to create single-atom transistors for only the second time ever.
  • They also achieved an unprecedented quantum mechanics feat, allowing for the future development of computers.
  • The tiny devices could be crucial in creating qubits, leading to next-generation technology.

    • Tiny technologies could have tremendous effects on the next generation of computers, supercharging memory and processing abilities. Key to these advancements would be the creation of transistors that are the size of several or even single atoms. Newly-published research from scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland provides a blueprint on how to create such microscopic tech.

      A big challenge to this endeavor is in figuring out how to duplicate such small transistors, which would act like small on-off switches, reports Science News. Utilizing the recipe they devised, the team led by NIST became just the second ever to create a single-atom transistor and the first ever to produce a series of transistors with only a single electron each, whose geometry could be manipulated at the atomic level.

      The scientists were also able to gain control over the quantum phenomenon of quantum tunneling, changing the rate at which individual electrons travelled through a physical gap or the transistor's electrical barrier. The significance of managing this process lies in allowing the transistors to get "entangled" according to the laws of quantum mechanics. This can lead to new ways of creating quantum bits (qubits) – the basic unit of information in quantum computing.

      Check out how the researchers were able to fabricate single-atom and few-atom transistors:

      Fabricating Single-Atom Transistors

      Their methods for precisely duplicating the devices that can work as qubits featured key innovations like sealing the phosphorus atoms involved with layers of silicon to protect them and then sending electricity to the embedded atoms, as NIST researcher Richard Silver explained.

      "We believe our method of applying the layers provides more stable and precise atomic-scale devices," he added.

      What's also remarkable about their achievement is that this approach of making electrical contact with the micro transistors has a nearly 100% success rate. This allows the devices to operate as part of a circuit. As Silver's colleague on the research, Jonathan Wyrick, stated, "You can have the best single-atom-transistor device in the world, but if you can't make contact with it, it's useless."

      The researchers also included Xiqiao Wang, Michael Stewart Jr., and Curt Richter.

      Check out their study in Communications Physics.

      This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

      A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

      Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
      Surprising Science
      • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
      • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
      • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

      First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

      Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

      All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

      BepiColombo

      Image source: European Space Agency

      The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

      Into and out of Earth's shadow

      In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

      The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

      In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

      When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

      Magentosphere melody

      The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

      BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

      MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

      Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

      Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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