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July 1999

HP Labs Scientists are Building Computer Chips in a Whole New Way.

Researchers take first step toward building a computer in a test tube

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by Jamie Beckett

A team headed by chemist Stan Williams and computer architect Phil Kuekes has created a molecular-based logic gate. Logic gates are a basic building block of all computers. Eventually, the researchers hope to build entire memory chips that are just a hundred nanometers wide, smaller than a bacterium.

If they succeed, they'll pave the way for processors that are far more powerful than today's chips - but just a fraction of the size and cost.

"Our goal is to make chips so cheaply and easily that any 12-year-old with a chemistry set could do it," said Williams.

Close-up of Pat Collier holding chip
Pat Collier of HP Labs holds a chip with a molecular-based logic gate

The HP researchers, working with a UCLA team led by chemistry professor James Heath, published the results of their work in the July 16 issue of the journal Science.

These molecular computer processors could wind up in wristwatch-sized supercomputers, woven into clothing or even in fingernail polish.Eventually, they may replace integrated circuits inside PCs. Chemical processors will be able to do all sorts of things silicon can't. For starters, they won't lose information if they lose electricity. Kuekes envisions all sorts of biomedical uses.

"They'll be able to snuggle up to a bacterium and determine if it's tuberculosis, and even what type of TB it is," he said.

The group's research could be the answer to the problems of the physical and fiscal limits of conventional silicon chips. To make computers more powerful, chipmakers have had to cram more and more transistors and wires onto processors. That requires increasingly complex methods of fabrication, which is driving up the cost of chip-manufacturing facilities. Costs are expected to reach $50 billion in a little over a decade.

Chemical assembly isn't perfect - but it doesn't have to be. Thanks to a computer architecture developed at HP Labs, computers will be able to function perfectly even if the chips aren't perfect. Using this architecture, the HP supercomputer, Teramac, has solved problems 100 times faster than a workstation, even though three-quarters of Teramac's 864 chips are defective.

To learn more

Quantum Science Research

Stan Williams

Phil Kuekes

To see the full article, pick up the July 16 issue of Science magazine C.P. Collier, E.W. Wong, M. Belohradsky, F.J. Raymo, J.F. Stoddart, P.J. Kuekes, R.S. Williams, and J.R. Heath, "Electronically Configurable Molecular-Based Logic Gates," Science, v. 285, No. 5426, p. 391, 16 July 1999.

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